Wednesday, September 3, 2008

The End of All Cans

There is recycling in Venezuela, though you wouldn't know it to look at a typical city street corner piled high with trash bags seeping mango juice and stinking of rotten chicken bones. A quick look at the bags shows all the usual recycling suspects: newspaper, office paper; glass bottles in clear, green, brown and blue; cans of aluminum and steel; and plastics of every sort. Not to mention the organic matter than in some cities is now sent to a municipal compost heap.

The recycling happens at the dump. Every dump has its residents, and the biggest -- which I haven't visited yet -- is La Bonanza (yes, the name means what it sounds like), the destination of Caracas's garbage. There, according to a TV report I saw recently, there are more than 1,000 people living in ranchos, homes made of waste material, and going through the trash for valuables.

This is mostly an old story all over the world. It's an important task and it's a job that gives people a living. The problem is that nowadays the existence of that job is evidence of a failed system. They are a scab over a persistent sore as materials leak out of the physical economy -- it's great to have a scab, but it would be better to cure the sore in the first place.

As is now, their job involves tearing open household trash bags and sorting through food scraps cooked in the tropical sun, the dirty toilet paper from the majority of buildings where the stuff can't be flushed and the crumbled styrofoam trays that accompany every block of cheese or pair of apples in most supermarkets, in order to find unwashed steel tuna cans, ant-laden aluminum soft-drink cans, and other valuables. I visited one small dump recently and found 15-year-olds standing around a bonfire of electric cables, burning off the plastic insulation and getting their daily doses of dioxin.

The government has been working on dumps -- on getting more garbage sent there. The first priority has been to cut down on the use of roadside ditches and canyons as informal landfills.


Anonymous said...

I work at a school and schools produce lots of paper that can be recycled. I teach my students to separate the materials into recycling and garbage which at the end of the day is dumped into the same container by the custodian. I have brought up the lack of recycling with a few people but it is not a high priority issue in an inner city school. I should also say this is not the first school where I have seen this happen. People in the states are so set on recycling where in other countries it is not given a thought because of the recycling that occurs at the dump. Sometimes recycling seems to absolve people from producing so much trash in the first place. But isn't the real problem with both scenarios, the fact they we do not give a thought to where our garbage ends up after we produce it?

Hedgehog said...

Yes, absolutely. Cutting down on trash production is the first goal, though it's all part of the same struggle. Supermarkets here always put cheese, as I mentioned, on a styrofoam tray that is less than useless. It takes up extra space in the fridge and causes the cheese to go bad more quickly because it creates an air gap between the cheese and the plastic wrap. But people feel they are somehow getting more when they get the tray. No consciousness and no leadership to change that.

Are you teaching in Venezuela or somewhere else?