Monday, July 12, 2010

A Bit of Litter-ature

"You know," I said to Kate, a volunteer in Managua, as we stepped over the rotting carcass of a dog on the way to the grocery store, "Puerto Cabezas really is prettier than Managua, though there's more trash in the streets there.

"There's MORE trash in the streets there?"

In Nicaragua, and especially underdeveloped areas like Puerto, the burden of what to do with the byproducts of consumption is borne not by the government and the poor neighborhoods that get stuck with trash disposal sites. It's borne by every individual. I've only ever seen recently dead dogs in Puerto Cabezas, and only maybe twice at that. I don't know if people clear them out, or if the impressive rate of decomposition, in no small part due to Bilwi's army of vultures, takes care of them before I notice. Dead dogs notwithstanding, Bilwi does have a lot more trash in its streets than Managua. It's not because the people are more apt to throw trash here than in Managua. Both places teem with litterbugs. It's because Managua has trash collection services, while Bilwi, for all intents and purposes, does not.

Our first exposure to Bilwi's garbage disposal policies came shortly after we arrived. The guys we were living with at the time started a cheery bonfire just outside Susan's window. We watched in lurid fascination as a plastic chair melted into oblivion.

Burning is the most common means of trash removal here. Larger organizations and wealthier folk pay for private trash removal services by men who take it and do God knows what with it. When we moved into our new house, I thought, "Good gracious, I can't burn my trash. I'm an American, for Christ's sake." So I dutifully sojourned to the municipal services office on the other side of the city. I met with the man in charge of trash collection, and he assured me his people could come and pick it up. After several weeks of faithfully putting our trash outside, to have it ripped apart by the dogs, and then putting it out in rice sacks, to have it sniffed at longingly by the dogs, we finally realized that the mythical trash men weren't coming.

Indignant, I felt a surge of capitalist righteousness rise within me. "If we can't get the public service to pick up our trash, we might as well contract someone that we can refuse to pay for not removing our trash!" And so we did. Unfortunately, private contracting does not guarantee regular pick-up, only squabbling over payment. So much for capitalism. After months of trash struggles, burning became more and more appealing. Susan forbids burning trash in our yard (something about toxic fumes...?) so I waited until she had left on vacation to try my hand at burning trash. It may be toxic and un-American, but turns out it's satisfying and oddly thrilling. Just don't get the fumes in your eyes. It burns.

The official government position is that people should bury their trash. My response is "Where, next to my well?" Burying the trash means I'll be drinking it eventually. Burning it means I'll breathe it. Chuck it in the ocean, and it'll come back in your seafood. In the face of these options, maybe the best one is what so many people opt for; just throw it by the road. It may be unsightly, but at least I'm not consuming it.

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