Thursday, January 29, 2015

World peace, an end to poverty, and less garbage

Day after Christmas at Las Penitas beach
     Were it up to me to pick a project for Central America, it might be garbage.
    In countries with per-capita GDPs somewhere around $4,000, sub-standard education systems and virtually zero social services, I admit that garbage is not the most pressing problem.
    But it's the kind of project that is wide open to all ages and classes, in urban and rural areas alike. It provides instant gratification, and possibly economic stimulus as well if you pay attention to which types of garbage have value and set up side projects along the way. (I dream of bringing Vancouver's Ken Lyotier to the region to help the impoverished recyclers here improve their systems.)
      It's a perfect project for involving young people, offering the potential for a major change in habits and a much-improved environment in only one generation. Once habits are changed, they stay changed, meaning it's also a project that you can do once and as long as you're thorough in the execution, it stays done.
     Plus if this lovely part of the world ever hopes to really get things going around tourism, they're simply going to have to stop throwing their garbage all over the place. It was truly sad to wake up at our little Pacific Coast getaway at Las Penitas beach the day after Christmas and see a thousand styrofoam coffee cups, food containers and little plastic bags washing out to sea and strewn all over what had been a pristine area just 24 hours earlier.
    Garbage cleanups also lend themselves to developing a spirit of volunteerism. Kids from local schools could become stewards of a certain number of blocks around their schools, led around by socially minded locals to do routine cleanups while getting educated about the harm that garbage can cause. Meanwhile, they go home and lean on their parents about not just chucking their chip bags and empty Coke bottles into the street. At least, that's the hope.
     Of course, no one's going to get a high-cost blue box campaign going on in a country like Nicaragua, or implement posh, odor-free landfills with elaborate systems for capturing methane gas like the one in my home town of Victoria.
     But just bringing all the garbage together in one designated spot would be a big step forward. As it is, it just seems to spill out all over the place here. Somebody dumps a couple of bags somewhere at the side of the road and everybody takes it as a licence to dump more. Add in hungry dogs, opportunistic turkey vultures, and people who eke out a living selling what other people throw away, and it gets ugly fast.
    There is a very good network of recyclers hard at work already in Managua, as I'm reminded every
Beach on Utila Island, Honduras, that's a
magnet for garbage brought in by the sea
garbage day when five or six different people pulling wheeled carts pass by our house looking for aluminum cans, plastic bottles and anything else that has enough value to either resell or remake into something useful for their families. I watched one guy spend at least 10 minutes whacking a big piece of concrete construction waste with a mallet to free up the wire framework inside, which he was presumably going to sell to a metal recycler.
     Judging by how poor the recyclers seem to be, it doesn't appear to be a line of work that pays well. But there's potential there as well - to find additional markets, to outfit them with better carts so they could cover more territory, to get Managuans separating their garbage from the outset instead of leaving it to the recyclers to tear apart bags on the street and inevitably contribute to the mess.
     Municipalities need to get much more involved for this plan to work, of course. For one thing, you can go a long way without ever seeing a public garbage can in Central American towns, and that's going to have to change. Plus there has to be enough in the municipal budget to pay someone to empty those cans, or otherwise you'll end up with the problem we saw in Copan Ruinas throughout our time there, where the overstuffed, reeking garbage cans in the town park attracted flies and stray dogs. You also need a municipal commitment to pick up garbage in all the neighbourhoods, not just the richer ones. That stuff really travels.
    And styrofoam. Lordy, let's do something about styrofoam. Down here, it's the go-to material for all the little food stalls and comedores, and you can't walk anywhere without seeing styrofoam clam shells piling up against a fence where the wind blew them or clogging up some little waterway. Please, somebody, invent a cheap insulating material that deteriorates quickly and harmlessly, and save this planet a lot of misery. 

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