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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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Comments

Hi Laura,

Great article! It is interesting the perspectives we gain depending on where we have lived and traveled. I live in Portland, Oregon, one of the most ‘green’ cities in the U.S. I spent 3 months this winter in Bogota and I was shocked to see the amount of plastic and styrofoam being used and happily tossed into a mishmash of glass, paper, food, rubber waste. I have come to realize that Portland is a bubble and the standards on which I base my lifestyle, all while having a long way to go in reducing its overall waste consumption and control.

One of the things I discovered in Bogota was that the riciladores tend to open garbage bags outside of residential or commercial buildings, take out what is recyclable and leave all the excess waste strewn about the sidewalk/street. If the city is unwilling to implement an effective waste and recycling initiative, it falls heavily on the citizens to make it easier for the riciladores to access the recyclables. i.e. Separating the different materials in a way that the streets aren’t being smothered with packaging/foodwaste etc. but that is not ‘convenient’ or attractive for many. Nor do people (that I came into contact with) have a strong education on what can and cannot be recycled in their city. It is an education based effort, that if effectively implemented, could infiltrate the ‘lazy’ or ‘inconvenient’ behaviors that humans are prone to. At the very least, putting the waste into clear plastic bags, rather than black plastic bags, would benefit the overall functionality of the waste pickers job so that it is easier to separate the recyclables from the bag. But, that is probably asking too much?!

Posted by Jamie Melton at October 9, 2012 at 5:09pm

wow! it feels so good to read all thes comments! It’s good to know that there are people sharing the same concern. Remember that each of us can make the difference, small actions can make big changes! So spread your ideas and feelings with people around you…
New ways of thinking would have to emerge starting for redesigning, changing of consumers patterns and why not introducing the term degrowth as the main target of a society…
Thanks to all for being concerned!

Posted by Laura at October 5, 2012 at 7:21pm

I can relate 100% and I often ask myself the same questions. Economic incentives do seem to be the main answer, though. Educating children at schools is another one.

Posted by Bettina at September 30, 2012 at 2:12pm

Regarding the post on waste occurring on college campuses, I witnessed this at Oberlin College when I went to help my daughter move after graduating. On one end of the campus is an experimental house where every kilowatt of power is being monitored and water is being recycled. On the other end of campus, students were abandoning material items (cookware, microwave ovens, hangers, clothing) in the dorms and on the sides of the streets. Could campus administrators coach students to redistribute their stuff with forethought and intention? My thanks to the people who do make an effort to keep student’s throwaways out of the landfills.

Posted by Tofumama at September 26, 2012 at 1:31pm

@Dave, you can’t come up with a reason this is happening that does NOT involve capitalism. Without capitalism, there wouldn’t even be things like water bottles and styrofoam dishware.

The reason people do this is purely conditioning. I haven’t lived anywhere but the United States, so I can only speak for this country. But I know very well that people here are raised to put convenience ahead of everything. Our schools and media do not teach us about how precious our resources are, and people do not grow up thinking about it. You have to come across it through social movements and alternative media, so some people really just never hear about it at all. And lots of other people hear about it, but discredit it because the love of convenience has been so deeply ingrained in them that they could never do something to go against it.

I think there are three things that would make people waste less: the best solution would be to eliminate these wasteful shortcuts altogether (which I think we should because if they exist, people will use them, and there is no societal benefit and waste has huge environmental/public health costs)… second would be to increase the costs of wasting and the rewards for conserving… finally, people like us who care about waste need to be more vocal but in a positive way. We don’t have to talk about the bad things waste is doing to the world, but we can envision a world without waste, and live less wasteful lifestyles while remaining sociable and open about it.

Posted by Amanda at September 26, 2012 at 8:21am

I live in a college town and with that means things of perfectly good use are tossed out when the students leave after each semester. Where I live we have both a dumpster for garbage and one for recycling. Each morning and evening my one neighbor goes out to see what can be reused and removes it from either dumpster. His passion is to collect vacuum cleaners and see if they need any repairs. So far in the last couple of months he’s saved several and two people I know well have benefited from his efforts when they needed a new vacuum. He refers to the dumpsters as our treasure box! It frustrates me greatly to see the waste that happens on a daily basis, where do people think their trash is going? We only have so much free land to use for their garbage.

Posted by Lois at September 25, 2012 at 9:55pm

Laura, I so relate to, and appreciate your perspectives. They just happen to exactly mirror mine! Why people refuse to ‘see’ waste, to value its monetary potential, its incredible cost to our global ecology, its negative effect on our physical world, its damage to the beauty around us, frustrates me each and every day. But while we all see these negatives, what distresses me even more is why noone seems to be able to find an effective answer to stop it! Legislative actions (disposal fees, recycling incentives, taxes, etc. offer some relief, but I still feel some greater force is at work to prevent a greater consciousness about how destructive wasting is. Capitalism is an easy ideological villain, but I feel that is just another easy out in order to avoid a more serious answer.
  Is there any way we world citizens can create a serious think tank or symposium, or research consortium (through international governmental bodies, NGO’s, etc.) to seriously address the specific issue of why people continue to ignore the destruction of waste? Is there any other option??
  Thank you very, very much for your blog. I truly appreciate your exposing this immense problem.

Posted by Dave Christman at September 25, 2012 at 8:20pm

Completamente de acuerdo, gracias x este blog!!!
Atentamente, una paisana colombiana-USA

Posted by Maria Mercedes at September 25, 2012 at 7:40pm

I agree about visibility of garbage pileup helping to remind us how much trash we create. In many western European countries, bags are no longer available in grocery stores; you must bring your own. How can we implement the same measures with respect to disposable packaging? It’s so sad to visit otherwise pristine, undeveloped countries, and see plastic junk food wrappers all over the countryside because they have access to the junk food but not to proper trash disposal!

Posted by Delphine Foo at September 25, 2012 at 3:35pm

Very interesting perspective! Your point about the value of a piece of waste differing from individual to individual is very intriguing and it makes me wonder about how we can add “value” to items that we typically consider “useless” in our disposable society?
Thanks for the post and I’d love to read more based on your experiences.

Posted by Cody Olander at September 20, 2012 at 8:14pm

And this is why I think that a downturn in the economy is not such a bad thing. When we have less money we will be forced to waste less and reuse more! Disposable paper plates are expensive. Washing dishes is not.

Posted by joanna @ I won't be a hoarder too at September 20, 2012 at 7:57am

Visibility would change people’s behavior. Stop the garbage trucks from coming for two months, and witness the changes that would happen as people had to either manage their own waste or watch it pile up.

Posted by Mary Logan at September 19, 2012 at 1:57pm

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