I love Candelaria, it is beautiful. However, unfortunately, Candelaria much like the rest of the developing world has garbage everywhere. Garbage on the streets, on people’s property, the beach, and in the canal. Unlike Canada, none of this garbage is organic waste. Composting programs are not needed because there is an abundance of pigs, dogs, cats, chickens, and cows that are sometimes literally waiting at your table for your scraps. One of my first days in Candelaria, I found that some bananas had gone very bad in my bag (as bananas in bags do). I didn’t want my host family to notice that I didn’t eat my bananas so I sneakily put them near behind my little casa and sure enough the next day they were entirely gone. The visible garbage is mostly pastic; chip bags, water sacs (they have water bags instead of water bottles here), plastic bags etc.. The first week I was in Candelaria I had a fear of giving over my toilet paper scrapings (you don’t flush used toilet paper here, it collects in a bin next to the toilet) because I thought I might see them flying past my window. What a terrifying thought!
I asked Jorge what happened to the garbage here, was it collected? No, when the people want to get rid of their garbage it gets burnt. True, if you have plastic or glass bottles or even metal you can get money for it. In fact, there is even someone who comes by every once and a while to the town trading chicklets for plastic bottles. How cool is that? But more often then not, I see these recyclable things that are absolutely not flammable (like coke bottles, glass, metal cans etc) struggling to burn among the used toilet paper.
One of Jorge’s, the program director of the volunteering project here, ideas for the volunteers was to help teach the kids the importance of respecting the environment. He wanted to organize an activity where the kids helped to clean the street (because there is only one) of Candelaria. As much as I liked this idea, I couldn’t help feeling a little frustrated by it; Jorge’s property was chalk filled with garbage and I felt that ideas of waste management and environmental respect needed to start here first before it went to the school. We talked about how in Candelaria, there was no culture of sustainability. For example he said grudgingly, that when he brought spare bags to the grocery store the people in the streets would laugh at him and call him an old lady (I’m not sure why old women are associated with sustainable pactices but all the power to them!). He explained to me that people here choose grocery stories based on how many individual plastic bags they are given for their vegetables. I asked Jorge he wanted help cleaning up his property, and he gladly accepted the help and the motivation.
The next day, I knew we had a big task ahead of us and I was anxious to get going. However, Jorge insisted it would only take an hour and therefore (much to my frustration) we started an hour before sunset. Finally, Jorge, Mira, Kati (two other volunteers that were here for a week), Jose Manual, Alejandra, and I got going on picking up and sorting the garbage. I’m not going to lie, it was a nasty job. Here is a list of some of the things I happened upon:
- several single shoes
- assorted beer cans and rum bottles
- broken glass
- a pile of used toilet paper scraps
- lots of broken tiles
- copious amounts of plastic bag items
- used diapers (unfortunately lots)
- and other random things such as such as a casing for a motorcycle
It was a dirty job and we worked until the mosquitos descended on us like a cloud of heavy falling rain. Although I was pretty disgusted with the work, I felt equally exhilarated that we were able to fill over six big bags with garbage. I kept imagining how beautiful the property would look if it was filled with gardens.
When I got back to my homestay to take a shower, I told my homestay mother what we had done. She said something approvingly and confirmed that she hated having garbage and littering. My eyes wandered to the garbage lying close to the house and she quickly said that it was her neighbours. Just as she finished telling me this, her 14 year old son finished a bag of chips and threw it on the ground.
It is true that Canada does not have the same littering problems. We do not see our garbage like Candelaria sees theirs but like Candelaria our garbage stays in our communities. Instead in Canada, the US and many other countries of the like, we use much more but don’t notice it because we hide it.We do not have a visible garbage problem but we have a big problem with overconsumption and waste management. In Candelaria, I became afraid of buying anything with wrapping because it would just turn into litter. Anything wrapped was just future garbage. I found myself choosing to have fresh fruit smoothies instead of drinks that came in bottles, and getting those fruit shakes for there so I did not have to deal with the ‘to go’ cup. I exclusively used my metal water bottle for hydration. Suddenly I was that downer that wanted to give kids fresh fruit instead of candies (don’t get me wrong I am not against sugar by any means!).
As the doom and gloom of the garbage situation became to impede in I found myself thinking of gardening. Last summer for the first time I had a big vegetable garden and started my own vermicompost. My home became a mini ecosystem where I could eat mz own food and the waste and by products from that food went into my compost and the compost went back into the garden where I could grow my own food. It was so satisfying.
The day before I left Jorge and I finally acted on the resolution to do something with our bags of garbage. Together with the children, armed with stuffing sticks, we began to stuff the plastic and styrofoam garbage into the plastic bottles. It was tough work, and again it was pretty nasty. But it was empowering because those we managed to, if you can believe it, stuff 3 big bags of garbage into 5 or 6 big coke bottles. The product of this method of garbage containment has recently become the basis for some NGO’s to use as a building material for houses. Jorge wants to use it to build gardens.