Monday, April 15, 2013

Sinking in a sea of garbage

Tegucigalpa floods: Take hills, garbage-blocked ditches and drains, add rain
I’ve been wondering about garbage-per-kilometre as a development indicator, along with all the formal measures like stunted children and GINI indexes and poverty rates.
Maybe when a society gets a handle on garbage, it’s reached some sort of turning point.
If so, Honduras has a long way to go.
Early this year, slick new recycling containers sprouted on the streets in Copan Ruinas. We saw them in Tela too, so it must be some sort of national program. They had their own little concrete pads and were abut four-feet tall tall and slender, with ad posters for banks or tourist sites on two sides. There was an opening on each end, and signs said one was for organic waste, and the other for plastic, cans, glass and cardboard.
Pretty darned green. Except if you looked inside, all the trash dropped into one open area. It was a really fancy and, it turned out, easily vandalized garbage pail.
That’s not surprising.
The “Don’t Be a Litterbug” stuff hasn’t caught on down here. When you ride the buses, people finish their snack or pop and toss the garbage out the window without a thought. (If the window is broken and won’t open, they toss it on the floor.) We’ve waged a continuing battle with the kids from Angelitos to use garbage pails, since their inclination is drop garbage anywhere.
The results aren’t pretty. A stretch of green roadside becomes an impromptu dump. The river - especially after a holiday - is littered with styrofoam food containers, bags of garbage and whatever detritus is left from the day’s fun.
Rivers and creeks are generally treated as good places to throw garbage, even whole communities’ garbage. In part, that’s because when the torrential rains come the garbage is swept away.
A Utila beach, and mainland garbage
Not good news for the people downstream, of course. Ultimately, the garbage ends up somewhere, and oceanfront communities complain the big rains bring a flood of garbage into the Caribbean and onto their beaches. We wandered along a dirt road to a deserted cove in Utila, which would have been stunning except for the dune of plastic garbage, likely largely from the mainland.
Even the rains can’t sweep all the garbage away. Tegucigalpa, the capital, was hammered with a two-hour rain during Semana Santa and had massive flooding.
A big part of the problem was garbage. “The floods in the capital were generated by the large amount of garbage dumped in streams, rivers, streets, curbs and gutters,” La Prensa reported. Drains were blocked, creeks and ditches overflowed and streets filled with black, garbage-choked water.
Maybe worrying about garbage comes later, when two-thirds of the population isn’t living in poverty. 
Maybe the lack of easy access to markets for recycled materials, especially outside the cities is an issue. (There are people who scavenge the loads as they come into the Tegucigalpa dump, grabbing cardboard and plastic and metal and selling them to brokers on the fringes. We get garbage pickup three times a week; I assume the guys on the truck grab what can be sold. My partner met a guy who scavenged plastic bottles, crushed them with his truck and took them to the city to sell when he had enough.)
Or maybe getting people to think about garbage - about shared responsibilities and shared losses - would be a step toward a society that thought about tackling some of those harder issues.