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Lessons from a Waste-Obsessed Traveler

Over the past few months, I’ve had the chance to travel in three different and unique countries to attend school and visit family and friends. From what I've observed, I think our current lifestyle needs a change, and I hope to inspire readers with my experiences and thoughts.

Originally from Colombia, I’ve spent the last 10 months studying in southern Sweden, and this summer I visited the U.S. and Bogotá—my hometown. Wherever I go, I bring a strange passion that most people I know laugh about: waste. I am obsessed with trying to get rid of it!

I recycle and reuse when I have the chance, and even when it’s not easy, I still try. I’ll hold on to a plastic cup from a coffee shop or café, just in case I find a recycling bin somewhere. If not, I’ll take it home to recycle even though my boyfriend starts making faces (“You can’t be serious!”). I don’t shop with plastic bags, and I’ll bring a reusable cup to a catered picnic at the park. I shop at secondhand stores, I take pictures of all the “stuff” they give me on airplanes (see photo below), and so on. Like I said, maybe I’m just a little obsessed!  

During my recent travels, it really struck me how waste can be so meaningful to some people and so insignificant to others. I once heard something that rings very true: “What counts as trash depends on who is counting.” While I was in Bogotá, I had the opportunity to talk to a waste-picker, or reciclador. He told me that he and his wife earn their living from what they can collect from the garbage cans of buildings that allow them to do so. He makes around US$150 a week, working night shifts, and that is enough for him and his wife and three kids.

That is his job, and he is proud of it: “At least I am not out there stealing from people; I work what I can and also contribute to maintaining a clean planet,” he told me. And the funny thing is, when I mentioned to my friends that I'd spoken with him, they all said, ”Oh no! He could have robbed you! Be careful, and don’t talk with such people.” I just laughed and said nothing, because there are people who just don’t get it. Considering the environmental waste issues that the world faces today, I think the reciclador is the last person we should worry about.

Contrast this with the United States. Whereas in Colombia, the waste-picker, on horseback, crosses nearly the entire city to pick around in the “trash,” in the U.S. I experienced the opposite end of the spectrum. I found that people were using plastic or styrofoam plates and cups in their own homes, simply because they were too lazy to wash the dishes (and by the way, the houses all had dishwashers). Unbelievable! I have to wonder how someone can take a clean plastic cup, fill it with clean water, drink out of it, and then immediately throw it away as though it had no value anymore. How can you do that? Where is the balance here? I don’t know…is it possible that I am being too passionate about this?

There may be no way to compare these two extremes. But I feel that most U.S citizens, with their higher education and income levels, should know better.

Of the three places I’ve visited recently, it seems like Sweden—another developed country with the same problem of waste—has the most balanced waste management habits. Here, you can find recycling facilities in strategic locations, like the parking lots of supermarkets or the corner of a school. Most supermarkets offer economic incentives for returning certain containers (like cans and plastic bottles), and the country has a nationwide fee system for using plastic bags—just to mention a few practices.

Yes, all of these things make it easier for people to reduce their waste, and that is great! But—guess what? There are plenty of Swedes who don`t bother to walk (or drive) two blocks to the recycling bins, or even to take their cans to the supermarket deposit. It’s an easy process, and they could even make money doing it. But I guess in this case, even money isn’t enough of an incentive to change people’s behavior.

So what would make the difference? In wealthier societies like the U.S. and Sweden, which produce large amounts of valuable materials, one or two dollars doesn’t really register in most people’s daily lives. What would it take to make people conscious of their actions? Do people have to experience poverty or deprivation in order to implement better practices, out of sheer necessity? Unfortunately, I don’t have the answers, but I keep wondering.

The message I want you to take home is this: please think twice before throwing something away! While it might look like trash to you, it could have precious value for someone else—even if indirectly through its broader impact on the planet. There is always space in your bag (or your partner’s) to carry your ‘trash” with you, and believe me, you will ultimately find a place to dispose of it where you can make a difference. The value we find in the things we throw away will only serve to improve the value of the world we all share.

Laura Calderon is a student at Lund University in Sweden, where she is enrolled in an International Master’s Programme in Environmental Studies and Sustainability Science.

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