Let’s Talk About It: Tides of Trash

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(Photo: Jessica Groenendijk/Living in Peru)

Trash, rubbish, garbage, litter – I never know which word to use. But it all amounts to the same thing. My chief hate. One of the few things that truly bothers me about living in Peru.

There are serious waste management issues here. Barely a day goes by I don’t see something involving trash that makes me cringe. On trash collection days, people leave their plastic bags full of waste out on the street at dusk. The thousands of dogs that roam the cities have a field day and, come morning, that rubbish is spread far and wide, complicating the work of the collectors and cleaners.

In many parts of Peru, the waste collection seems to be non-existent so that people are forced to spill their trash down hillsides or into gullies and streams. Out of sight, out of mind, they must think. Except, of course, it’s not. And how many times have I seen a hand appear from the window of a bus or taxi and blithely drop a plastic wrapper or a drink carton on the road? Clearly, for some people, putting one’s rubbish away in a pocket or bag for later disposal at home or other appropriate location is an alien concept.

(Photo: Jessica Groenendijk/Living in Peru)

Anyway, if people want to foul their own nest, that’s their look-out. What really gets my goat is when families or friends go out for the day, you know, actually make an effort to venture into the pretty countryside for a picnic or barbecue, and then leave dozens of single-use forks and Styrofoam plates and plastic bottles for the next visitors to enjoy. Plus a full nappy or two for good measure.

Peru’s desert coast is where the trash problem is most evident.

Next time I have to drive through Chimbote and Trujillo I will keep my eyes firmly closed. Once, when we were camping on a beach in the Paracas nature reserve, a family arrived to enjoy the sea for a few hours and set up their umbrella and towels near us. They were friendly and kind: when they left they gave us a red ball for our kids to play with. But they also abandoned two carefully knotted plastic bags full of trash only metres from the incoming tide. What did they think was going to happen to those bags? Had they not noticed the trash collection point about fifty metres further along the beach?

Speaking of beaches, Peruvians love nothing more than to go camping or day-tripping in the two months following Christmas. They live for summer days on the beach. But at the end of every one of those days, the most popular beaches are a sea of unsightly and long-lived junk food containers.

And then there are the rivers. Sadly, because rivers conveniently carry off trash (out of sight, out of mind), they are treated as dumping sites. Not only are they often highly contaminated within the confines of towns (the grey, sluggish, toxic Huatanay River in Cusco breaks my heart), they are also disfigured by plastic and Styrofoam many kilometres downstream. And it all inexorably ends up in the ocean.

(Photo: Jessica Groenendijk/Living in Peru)

Last year, my parents spent several months traveling through other countries in South and Central America and described similar sights there. They say that in England, too, roadsides are littered with trash. But Peru does seem to take it to a whole new level. In an effort to try to understand this kind of behaviour, and through talking with many others in Peru, expats as well as Peruvians, I have compiled the following possible explanations:

1. Does the ‘me, me, me’ attitude that seems so prevalent (here and elsewhere, I hasten to add) blind people to consideration of visitors who follow in their footsteps? So long as they get what they want out of a place?

2. Hey, maybe there are simply not enough public trash bins.

3. Are children not educated about proper trash disposal, or is the teaching so
unimaginative that it goes in one ear and out the other?

4. Perhaps children are taught well at school (as I suspect) but their parents set poor examples, or automatically tidy up after their kids and undo all the good work of teachers.

5. Maybe Peruvian TV shows don’t provide positive role models?

6. Nature is to be used, not respected?

7. Or worse, nature has no meaning at all? Perhaps the disconnect between nature and some groups of people is too profound.

8. What if it’s a cultural thing and trash is not ugly to some people the way it is to me? Maybe they simply don’t see it. It’s there like a rock or a tree might be, and just as innocuous.

9. Possibly people don’t realise that a plastic bottle doesn’t decompose the way a leaf or flower does. They believe grass will eventually grow over it?

10. Or perhaps people do care, but they care much more about where their next meal is coming from, or whether hubby will return home drunk, or the kids have decent clothes to wear to school. The relentless grind of day-to-day concerns, even survival.

11. Maybe it’s the municipalities that can’t get their acts together. The mayors who only think of election campaigns and their own popularity.

12. Perhaps it’s only a matter of time. After all, the London of the Industrial Revolution was a cesspit, right?

13. Or, let’s face it, maybe I’m the one who has the problem.

To be fair, I once overheard a fashionably dressed young woman gently rebuke an elderly lady for dropping the plastic wrapper of a set of candles to the ground (in a place of worship, no less) when a trash can was a mere two metres away. Plastic bottles do get recycled (if they are found by the people who want them to earn a bit of extra money), and there’s an annual campaign, “Hazla por tu Playa”, that’s gaining momentum. And my Peruvian biologist/conservationist colleagues and Facebook friends are often as perplexed and disappointed and frustrated as I am about the trash problem.

There’s a glimmer of light, I think, at the end of the trash tunnel.

My husband and children are Peruvian, all born in Lima. I’m not, but because of my family, I know this country will always feature largely in my life. On the one hand, this makes me glad. Peru has so much beauty and culture to offer. Yet it makes the ugliness and mismanagement of trash so much harder to bear. It dismays me to think that decades may pass before the tide truly turns… and stops bringing plastic and Styrofoam to Peru’s wild and spectacular landscapes.

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Jessica Groenendijk

Jessica is a Dutch biologist turned conservationist and writer. She fuses her work in conservation and her personal experiences of wildlife and wild places with her passion for words and photography to help connect people with nature. Her writing has been published in BBC Wildlife Magazine, Earth Island Journal, The Island Review, and Africa Geographic, as well as in Animal: A Beast of a Literary Magazine and Zoomorphic, amongst others. Her blog Nature Bytes was Highly Commended in the International Category of the 2015 BBC Wildlife Blogger Awards. She is a member of The Society of Authors and is currently working on a book on giant otters and their conservation. She lives with her husband, two kids, and too many other animals near Lima, Peru.