And then there was recycling

Garbage is on the rise in Ecuador. Plastic bottles, cardboard boxes, old televisions, and a wide array of waste that a decade ago would have been stuffed into landfills is today the fuel of a multi-million dollar machine that is, perhaps, currently the only Ecuadorian industry with a bright future. Indeed, despite the enactment of laws in the last few years that have made it extremely difficult for emerging businesses to prosper, there has been a simultaneous government impulse to develop the recycling industry as part of a larger plan to make Ecuador a leader in environmental policy.

The new government database, VDatos, a child of the National Institute of Statistic and Census, is the first environmental database in the world that has followed the Framework for the Development of Environment Statistics proposed by the United Nations in 2013. Through the census data collected over the last few years we can now assert, for example, that the number of Ecuadorian households that separate their waste into organic, not organic, and recyclable has doubled since 2010. This would be more impressive, of course, if that figure had not been 20% to begin with, and even more so if municipal governments actually recycled the waste they collect, but at least this does make it an easier job for the thousands of people who have turned to ransacking trash and recycling for a living.

Carlos Alfonso Guamán is one of such people. Surrounded by barrels in a corner of Tumbaco on a Tuesday morning, his job for the day is to classify and arrange all the paper, plastic, and cardboard his mother and two sisters bring him from around the area. “Please, allow me,” he says making a path for a wrinckled-nose woman who has turned the corner to find a spread of neatly arranged trash. She walks through without saying a word, while he politely wishes her a good day. Most people going past, however, say hello to him; they know Guamán and his family, some even leave their trash separated for them, though those are very few, he assures me. “This is what I do on trash days, but I also do other work; the competition has become too fierce to make this a livelihood,” Guamán explains, almost apologetic about the 90 kilos of recyclable material his family gathers every week. A family can’t live on 90 kilos of recyclable material every week; it amounts to little more than $60, and though some families in Quito do make enough to sustain themselves — they tend to be large families in which everyone helps from dawn to dusk, aggressively protecting what they see as their collecting territory, — the fact is Ecuadorians just don’t produce enough recyclable waste. Yet.

Here’s the thing about recycling: it alleviates our conscience. The 100 grams of specialty tea that came in a gorgeous aluminum container, inside an overtly-designed cardboard box, delivered in a beautiful paper bag, all becomes obsolete after two pots of tea. If this were to all end up in the bin, it would normally weigh in our conscience. But hey, Mr Guamán is out there, he’ll take care of it, he’ll make some extra cash, and bonus, the planet will be saved. Thank goodness for recycling.

Such is the rationalization of people who live in places where a good deal of the things they consume are recycled, thus allowing for people to ease their minds about continuous consumption. Perhaps the country that seems to show the biggest concern for recycling — as in the one that has the most recycling bins for just about every material on the Earth — is Canada. Canadians, one might say, walk around consuming overly-packaged things with a clean conscience and squeaky clean public spaces, too, which surely we can all agree makes for happy-go-lucky Canadians. In 2013, however, a report by the CBC announced that Canada produces more garbage per capita than any country on Earth.

Back in Ecuador, where the recycle industry is so new that 60% of households don’t even fathom the idea of separating their trash, the way of thinking and consuming has traditionally leaned on the side of guilty consciences and re-use of things. No Guamán was going to be picking up things that could be used for something else, so we used things to the max. Every grandmother’s kitchen would have featured old jam jars filled with spices, cocoa tins filled with flour — always a disappointment — and flower pots made out of plastic containers that were once steaming with colada morada.

In a corner sandwich shop on a recent trip to Baños, a cook was carefully spooning pepper out of a glass jar. I use the same old coffee jar in my kitchen to store oregano, but seeing this most primitive recycling process in another kitchen got me thinking about how rare this practice has become. At some point someone visiting grandma thought “poor grandma, using these ugly things to store her spices, someone should give her kitchen a make-over.” And sure enough grandma found herself with beautiful new glass jars decorated with labels to store all her spices. It’s not just grandma’s house: Ecuadorian kitchens are looking quite different. Why save margarine tubs to store food when we can get cute tupperware — that is, a plastic bowl with a plastic lid, much like a margarine tub — currently on offer at whichever-maxi store.

Ecuador is indeed coming up to speed with world recycling trends, in fact 2015 was declared an official recycle year by the government. For the most part this is a positive thing in the way we manage our waste, yet it might be a good idea to ponder on how exactly does a recycling society understand waste, and just how tight is the connexion between recycling and consuming.

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