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Highly Commended in the International Category of the 2015 BBC Wildlife Blogger Awards

Living with Trash

Trash in the Andes. Photo: Jessica Groenendijk

Trash, rubbish, garbage, litter – I never know which word to use. But it all amounts to the same thing. My pet hate. One of the few things that 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 wince. 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 city have a field day (I mean, night) and, come morning, that rubbish is spread far and wide, complicating the work of the collectors and cleaners. In some parts of Cusco waste collection is non-existent so people are forced to spill their rubbish down hillsides or into gullies. Out of sight, out of mind, they must think. Except that it’s not out of sight. 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 drinks carton on the road? Clearly, for some people, putting one’s litter away in a pocket or bag for later disposal at home or other appropriate location is an alien concept.

Anyway, if people want to foul their own nest, that’s their look-out. What really, 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 extra spice.

Once, when we were camping on a beach in a 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 in the middle of the beach. What did they think was going to happen to those bags?

Speaking of beaches, the Limeños 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 every time I glimpse it), they are also disfigured by plastic and Styrofoam many kilometres downstream.

My parents recently spent three months travelling through Uruguay, Paraguay, Chile and Argentina and described similar sights there. 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 here in Cusco, I have compiled the following possible explanations:

  • 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?

  • Hey, maybe there are simply not enough public trash bins?

  • Are children not taught at school on the subject of proper trash disposal, or is the teaching so unimaginative that it goes in one ear and out the other?

  • Perhaps children do get taught well at school (as I suspect) but their parents set poor examples or automatically clean up after their kids and undo all the good work of teachers?

  • Maybe Peruvian TV shows do not provide positive role models?

  • Nature is to be used, not respected?

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

  • 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?

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

  • 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 that the kids have decent clothes to go to school in? The relentless grind of day-to-day concerns, even survival?

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

  • Perhaps it’s only a matter of time? After all, the London of the Industrial Revolution was a cesspit, wasn’t it?

  • Or, let’s face it, maybe I’m the one who has the problem?

To be fair, I once overheard a young, fashionably dressed woman gently but firmly 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 the Cusqueño families who occasionally join us on our weekly nature walks, as well as my Peruvian biologist/conservationist colleagues and Facebook friends, are often as perplexed and disappointed and frustrated as I am.

I’ve lived in Peru for a total of more than 11 years. It’s taken me that long to figure out some of the possible reasons for the country’s trash problem and to write my thoughts on paper. I hope it doesn’t take me that long again to help figure out and implement possible solutions. Or to witness change for the better.

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