Thank The Garbage Worker

Aidan Holloway-Bidwell - Ecuador

January 28, 2013

The next time he rolls by in his big, loud, clanky truck, thank the garbage worker. If there is one bit of advice I can give you as a result of my experience here in Ecuador that would be it. You don’t need to sound overly sincere, certainly not sarcastic, just say a simple “thank you.” Even a grateful wave could do the trick. Now this might seem like a funny, extraneous piece of advice. He’s only doing his job, right? Well if there’s something else I’ve taken from these past few months, it is that I will never precede the phrase “doing his/her job,” with “only.”

Why do I say this? I’ll start with the events of a few months ago, when I was just starting my little recycling project in the cloud forest town of Amanecer CampesinoAmanecer Campesino consists of a school building, family store, and church, clustered around the road that runs across the Rio Blanco and switchbacks up the valley to Los Bancos, my home town. The local school is comprised of 50 students, 7 grades, and 4 teachers. I was to start there. I had never initiated a project like this on my own, but the system was fairly straightforward.

I had an agreement with a man (I’ll call him Luis.) This agreement was that I would travel to Amanecer Campesino to give presentations to the students and their parents about the hazards of burning and discarding trash in the environment. I would then present the alternative: a recycling system. Luis would provide me with large canvas bags which I would bring to the school, and the children would fill them with bottles and cans, paper and cardboard, brought from their homes. Luis would take his truck by the school, weigh each bag of trash, and pay the school correspondingly. The trash would go back to his farm to be processed and sold to a company in Guayaquil, the largest city in Ecuador, located on the Pacific coast.

On November 22nd I walked through the tall black gate onto the school grounds in Amanecer Campesino with my projector and laptop. I was dressed for success in my slightly too large button down and new khakis. The presentation went very well. The kids understood the subject matter, and were so excited by it that we spent the next hour doing a sweep of the street, up and down, collecting bottles, bags, and cans. The next day I returned and was greeted by students dragging sacks of plastic bottles and other recyclables to separate and put into the small bags I had brought. That night I called up Luis and told him all that was left was for him to pick it up.

That never happened. The fact is that Luis isn’t a cog in a huge, state sponsored, waste disposal organization. When it comes down to it, it’s just he and maybe half a dozen workers who process recycling on his farm. This situation does not forgive many mistakes or accidents. For example, his only licensed truck driver was hospitalized after a car accident and could not drive for several weeks. This meant that Luis had to make trips every day of the week to recycling stations dozens of miles away, and could not make trips to pick up the relatively small amounts of recycling in Amanecer Campesino. He had also guaranteed giant canvas bags to collect the recycling, these were necessary because if a sufficient amount of recycling was not collected, the trip to Amanecer Campesino would not be worth the trip. He had to default on that offer as well however because the company in Guayaquil would not deliver them to his farm. This meant that he would have to drive the 8 hours down to Guayaquil and back, without any compensation for gas or time spent. Luis ran an invaluable business, and my project relied entirely on him, but we were too few people shouldering too much work, without enough manpower to get it all done.

With regret I had to search for an alternative to Luis, someone who had easier access to materials and a more predictable schedule, but who?  There was no recycling system in place, which was foreign and confusing to me.The Municipal collector only dealt with pure trash, and not recyclables. Finally, with the help of some connections at the Municipality we found a woman who ran a similar operation to Luis’s. Her requirements for separation are a little different then Luis’s, and the Municipality has not worked with her before. Enlisting her is the next step in the trial and error technique that characterizes developing projects like this: trying to create a system where before there was nothing. All told, what looked like a simple plan on paper left me worn out every day, unsure of what to expect or how to continue.

In Ecuador people like Luis work independent recycling systems; driving their trucks through unpredictable weather without certainty of a reward every day. There are differences in what can and can’t be collected between each service. Roads are frequently blocked by landslides, and accidents are too common. Waste disposal coordination isn’t an easy thing here in Ecuador. It’s a system that is currently in the making, and those who participate do it because they truly want to help, not for the money or job stability. Every person that lends a hand in the process makes it that much easier for others to do their jobs, and from that group effort the infrastructure eventually crystallizes, but there is still a way to go here.

In terms of the trash not being collected, the fault doesn’t lie on any one person, not on Luis, or myself, or the Municipality. With the combination of so much responsibility and so much unpredictability, it was tough for Luis to do his job because the system wasn’t pre-established, and thus when things went wrong, the burden fell on too few shoulders to get things back on track.

Once a system reaches a high enough level of efficiency, we start to take it for granted, and forget how much work goes into it every day. Taking out the trash or bringing bottles to the dump may seem like a nuisance chore in the States, but I guarantee it works as the result of tons of effort. The fact that this mundane chore of putting out the trash is part of our schedule is proof of the efficiency of the system, but it wasn’t always so easy, and in most of the world is still isn’t. So that brings me back to the start of this post, thank your garbage worker. We often forget the significant contributions of the manual laborers, the drivers, the people who get the work done. They may forget the significance of their contributions as well. They are the pioneers of a relatively new system that is still being perfected, and that thousands are doing their best to implement all around the world.

Aidan Holloway-Bidwell