Thursday, July 14, 2011

Managing Solid Waste - Something Which We All Take For Granted

One of the direst environmental issues here is the crisis that Costa Rica has with dealing with solid waste (as well as many other developing nations).  They don't refer to what we throw away in our garbage cans as garbage, but "residúos solidos" because the majority of the things we throw in the trash are actually not trash, but can be recycled or reused.  In fact, only 7% of what would traditionally be called "trash" is actually trash.  On top of that approximately 58% of that "trash" is actually biodegradable and is taking up space in trash cans (or "basureros"), attracts all kinds of animals and "bichos", brings with it diseases in addition to it literally just doesn't smell good.

Before coming to Costa Rica, I didn't really think too much about trash and how it is managed in our country.  We separate our recyclables (and at my former job our compostables) and put our waste in plastic bags and off it goes every so often with guys that come by in the garbage truck early in the morning and wake us all up with the sounds they make.  But where does all of this go?  Where is the closest landfill to where we live?  And how much of that trash is really garbage and how long does it take for specific types of materials to decompose?

In Costa Rica they have a decentralized system for treating solid waste which is handled at the municipality level.  Therefore, if there are 82 municipalities in Costa Rica you have 82 different ways of managing the solid waste that accumulates at an alarming rate day by day.  Supposedly, although I have not read it and couldn't find it online by a simple search, there is a law that orders municipalities in Costa Rica to take care of solid waste within their regions in an orderly, regular and healthy manner.  However, in my experience here in Costa Rica, it is obvious that this is not happening and that there is no accountability to require that this occurs or to punish those municipalities which are not making it a priority to deal with this issue (nor is there sufficient money given to the municipalities to tackle this mounting issue).

In many rural communities here the municipalities do not have a method for picking up trash.  In fact, only 75% of the country is covered by some method of collecting trash.  The other 25% of the communities have two options: throw the trash in vacant lots or burn it, both with obvious terrible effects for the environment.  Out of the countries municipalities only 34% have sanitary landfills to deposit trash and out of those only 5 of them operate legally and out of those only 1 is operated by a municipality.
In Talamanca, we do have trash collection at the municipality level and the trash is transported over an hour north to a landfill in Limón.  However, the issue with the garbage collection is that the service is not regular leaving garbage to sit out on the banks of the streets and allowing stray dogs to break open the bags, scattering trash everywhere in search of food.  And despite the fact there is trash pick-up many people still burn their garbage.
Littering here is also a cultural habit that is passed down from parents to their children.  I was told one time that in the past here everyone used to litter, but that was when the majority of what was thrown on the ground was organic and decomposed.  As the years passed and the people here began buying their food in plastic containers, it didn’t register that the plastic that they were throwing on the side of the road would not decompose for at least 500 years.  Another issue here that I wouldn’t have thought about previously is that the trash that collects on the side of roads and in people’s yards accumulates water which then become nesting grounds for mosquitoes which carry and spread dengue of which there has been a recent outbreak in this area.  It also has a devastating effect on the animals that happen to consume this garbage as they think it is food; oftentimes dying of hunger because their stomachs are filled with plastic and they cannot each anything.    

Additionally, Costa Rica has lacked education about the effects of this ever-accumulating trash and lacks the institutional and financial means to tackle this issue which, before coming to Costa Rica, I took for granted in the United States.  For instance, what is plastic made from (answer: petroleum – another reason to not use plastic as it helps to encourage wars in oil-producing nations).  Were you aware of the big floating garbage “soup” in the middle of the Pacific Ocean that is said to be twice the size the state of Texas?  See link:  If we don’t act soon (meaning NOW), we’re really going to be doing some irreversible damage, if it hasn’t been done already.  

My municipality, although it lacks the coordination for regular trash pick-up does have a nascent system for recycling among mainly large and small businesses in the area and is an example to many other communities and municipalities in Costa Rica.  In fact, they are able to recycle many things which in the States I would throw away and which is considered (as far as I know) non-recyclable like the chips wrappers and what they call “tetrabrik” or “tetrapak” which are the milk and juice cartons which are composed of cardboard, aluminum and plastic.  However, they still lack a system for domestic recycling which is one of my project goals here for the next two weeks.

So, when I go to the local supermarket, Palí, to buy a soda or buy some chips, I am much more likely to refuse those that contain plastic and am especially careful of such wasteful items such as Styrofoam.  I encourage all of you who are not already doing so to reuse and recycle.  And for those of you who are already doing that I encourage you to think about the cycle of waste and to think about reducing or rejecting (the cornerstones of the 4 R’s: Rethink/Reject, Reduce, Reuse & Recycle).

As for me, when I return to the States I’m going to question more the consumption which leads to what I would call a disease, because in the end, it is making us all sick.

1 comment:

  1. Multiply this problem by 250 and you have what we face in India, Lanning. With today's economic boom there, the consumption is far greater and hence the waste. So, the issue is far worse, I think.

    Great post, man.