The Trash-Tossing Tarnish


March 1, 2010

The other day I took a seat on the bus next to an old grandmother. She was snacking on some chips, and when she finished the bag, she promptly balled it up and threw it out the window. I was taken aback. It seemed to me like at home the old grandmothers would be the ones chastising young people for acting so carelessly. But this snapshot is nothing out of the ordinary.

And I haven’t become desensitized to this fact of Guatemalan life either, as I have to my lack of personal space on the bus or the street noise at all hours. Everywhere I look, there is an unbelievable amount of the most unappealing materials: shiny plastic chip bags and cellophane wrappers, cigarette butts and those ubiquitous, paper thin, black plastic bags that every corner tienda, tortilleria, or market stall uses. According to one article I read in laCuerda, studies have indicated that 60% of the domestic trash here is due to the accumulation of these plastic bags, which take 500 years to biodegrade. It has been calculated that Guatemalans buy 35 million boxes of cigarettes every year, and with the prohibition on smoking inside restaurants and public places, I would wager that a vast number of them end up tossed on the street, where they take 10 years to biodegrade and have enough chemicals left in them that if placed in a liter of water they will kill a fish in four days.

All of my experiences with trash here have really made me think how I took regular garbage pick-up and my city’s curb-side recycling program for granted. I also took for granted that when I participated in collecting my trash and recyclables that they would be taken care of in a responsible way, not dumped into the ocean or in a forest somewhere. A trash-truck comes around Santo Tomas once a week, but no one seems to know where the trash goes to. My guess is that they throw it on a huge mound I have often glimpsed through the trees as my bus comes speeding up the mountain from Antigua in the evenings. Recycling only exists if you contract personally with a recycling organization. With all these experiences and concern in hand, I’m trying to follow Zuleika’s lead and start talking and teaching about this issue, so stay tuned…