Imagine getting up in the morning, collecting the garbage in your home, and taking it outside. After opening your door, you see a person watching you intently from the corner of your street. You walk a few steps, and place your trash bags where they will eventually be picked up. No sooner than you turn your back, that eager person from the corner is making their way over to your refuse. Within moments they are rummaging through the waste. Searching for bottles and other items of value, you might occasionally see them kicking toward hungry street dogs to protect their bounty and themselves from a painful bite. While this scenario might seem ridiculous to you, it happens every day in Peru. The circumstances for why people in Peru collect re-usable and recyclable items in the trash is complex, intriguing, troublesome, and potentially wonderful.
Why People Dig Through Garbage in Peru
According to Peru’s National Institute of Statistics, 39.3 percent of Peru’s population live in poverty. Jobs are scarce. The Peruvian government generally does a poor job of collecting trash and there is almost no formal recycling in the country. Garbage is just placed on the streets of Peru in whatever kind of plastic bag is available. In the capital city of Lima, where approximately one third of Peru’s 28 million people live, residents take out the trash on a daily basis. In other cities, it also generally is a fairly regular activity. So, with a regular supply of garbage, an organized industry of black market recycling has erupted.
For an American like myself, it was an odd and uncomfortable feeling when I first saw people digging through my trash, pulling out empty soda bottles, cans, and other items that might be of use. I began to wonder why this was occurring, so I asked my wife who is Peruvian to explain. She described initially that “it was a job” and that many people in Peru were happy just to have one. Next she said that the plastic bottles and other items were sometimes sold to businesses that would sometimes refill the bottles and containers with unsanitary water, phony liquids, fake pharmaceutical substances, and other cheap impostors. These fake items are then sold to Peru’s poor, or to the general public by stores that choose not to monitor that their suppliers are legitimate.
Sounds bad, right? Well, as I wrote earlier, it’s not that simple.
Peru’s Recycling Problem and Another Ethical Dilemma
According to one of the more comprehensive and well-written guidebooks about Peru that I own,
nearly 200 million plastic bottles are produced every month in Peru alone, and a good chunk of these are consumed by tourists– who need a few liters of purified water for each day in Peru… There is no plastic recycling in Peru, so everything ends up in landfills or, as is the case with the Urubamba, floating downstream to the Amazon.
Ouch! So at least someone is recycling in Peru.
But what are the negative consequences for people who collect re-usable and recyclable items for the black market? In addition to the almost assured disability to earn a tremendous amount of money, there are the health issues involved. The constant need to search through waste exposes these impoverished people to disease, toxic substances, and any other number of negative environmental factors. For example, there are the increased instances of being near the ubiquitous street dogs that live in Peru– a potentially nasty health hazard.
There is also the issue of child labor. An estimated 2.3 million children between the ages of 6 and 17 work in Peru, almost a third of that demographic. Many of them collect trash. Click here to read the story of Diego, a 13-year-old trash collector. One can only guess that sifting through garbage pounds a heavy psychological and physical toll on much of Peru’s youth.
So these circumstances explain why I have a dilemma on every day that I take out the trash. If I were to cut up my family’s plastic bottles, boxes, and other recyclables, I’d be helping to curtail a black market industry that preys on the poor and unsuspecting with shoddy and unhealthy products. On the other hand, if I did so, I’d also be contributing to the tons and tons of waste accumulating in Peru every day, stymying what little recycling there is in Peru (and some of it is legitimate), and also putting some very desperate and needy people out of potential earnings and jobs. So, I’ve decided (at least so far), that it’s the lesser of two evils to continue putting my recyclables out on the street for the taking. But it hasn’t stopped me wondering how this problem might be solved, or at least improved.
Potential Solutions to the Problem, and One Bright Shining Example of Creativity
One solution to the problem would be for the Peruvian government to improve their waste management programs and actually start a serious recycling program that could employ impoverished Peruvians. Such infrastructure improvements would fit in well, for example, as part of the Peruvian President Alan Garcia’s plan for Peru to bid for the 2016 Summer Olympics. The government could also choose to crack-down upon those businesses who sell and produce impostor products. During my research for this article, however, I found an example of an organization that has already worked within the circumstances to brilliantly turn the tables on the negative aspects of black market recycling.
A Peruvian industrial engineer named Albina Ruiz created a powerful organization to help Peru address its waste management problem. Ciudad Saludable (Healthy City) helps to empower local Peruvian communities by having local businesses privatize the management of trash. In addition to employing 150 people, serving 3 million people, and cleaning up countless communities, Ciudad Saludable helps educate people about environmental issues and some of its employees have even begun to make organic fertilizer from the garbage they collect. For these successes, Ruiz was praised as “A New Hero” by a PBS program, was asked to create a national program for Peru, and has been contacted by other countries in Latin America interested in modeling their efforts on those of Ciudad Saludable. The organization also beat out 700 international environmental organizations to win an “Innovative Environment Project” award this year.
I think we all can say, best wishes Ms. Ruiz on leading Peru to a better future in every possible way (but don’t feel free to ignore the problem, either, government of Peru).