Wednesday, May 12, 2010

talking trash

Abbot and Costello.  Laurel and Hardy.  Fat Man and Little Boy.

The analogies are endless.  But few things symbolize the difference between Mexico and Oregon better than garbage collection.

Every Tuesday evening in Salem, you would believe that a Robert Bly symposium was convening.  The deep rhythmic booms of men gathering.  But this is no solemn meeting of men trying to find their inner warrior.  It is merely husbands taking it the garbage.

Not the garbage of my youth, either.  This is garbage sorted into its various components and hidden away in plastic containers. 

Yard waste.  Glass.  Recyclables.  General garbage.  Each as segregated as a 1950s train station in Montgomery.

Looking down my street early on a Wednesday morning, you might be convinced that an obsessive Swede had constructed some form of environmental art.  Garbage containers lined up with more precision than grenadiers on parade.

My garbage routine in Mexico was a bit more -- improvisational.

No special containers in my village.  And no sorting.  A plastic garbage sack serves as a body bag for anything on the way out of the house.

Instead of Nordic-orderly plastic containers, you will find raised metal baskets to keep the garbage bags off of the sidewalk.  When I first saw them, I thought they were some sort of brazier -- a remnant of Aztec culture, perhaps, involving the immolation of entrails.  A very practical -- and arty -- solution.  For the garbage, not the entrails.

The only things that do go into bags are items that are merely broken.  If I set out anything that has a bit of life left in it, someone will pick it up and put it to good use.  My neighbors are very practical people.

The same thing goes for aluminum cans.  I always put them in a separate bag.  There are several men in the village who make a living collecting and reselling such things.  Putting it in the separate bag relieves them of the task of digging through the garbage.

But the biggest difference is the frequency of garbage pick up.  In Salem, it is every Wednesday morning -- one guy in a mechanized truck.  Around 7 AM.  As timely as a Mussolini train.

In Melaque, pick up is almost daily.  Usually in the morning.  Maybe later.  And no mechanized truck.  The garbage crew is as retro as my past in Powers, where men would jump off the back of the truck, pick up the bags, and toss them into the truck.  Always open to a greeting or a brief chat.

I do not prefer either system.  Each one seems to be perfectly suited to its particular environment.  Americans tend to hide things that they find bothersome.  Garbage fits in the same category as death or eccentric relatives that end up in jail.

Mexicans treat garbage as a natural result of life.  Not something to hide.  It is merely something to process.

Like bad analogies.


Katie said...

I love our big blue recycling cart. When it is full to the top it is put out for pick-up, about once a month for our small household. We seldom have more than two small bags to put in the very small garbage can; we compost kitchen scraps and recycle almost everything else. I use the yard debris bin to know when it is time to stop working in the yard on a Saturday. As soon as it is filled to the top, time to sit back and enjoy the rest of the day. I guess it goes without saying that my household is not in Mexico.

Tancho said...

I prefer a 55 gallon drum with a few shot out holes from a shotgun, toss your stuff until it is half full then light it,
The once every 6 months or so, spread it out in the hollow, cover it up and that's it!
But progress (argh) has made 55 gallon plastic drums that will melt, your neighbor will complain if you shoot your shotgun, he will complain of the smoke, and be jealous that you don't have to pay 25 bucks a month for the service....therefore you are forced to have garbage service in many municipalities in the US, even if you create no refuse.
I'll take SOB any time.....
I have a friend that works for a recycling co, it is not all what you are lead to believe , it is a feel good illusion.

- Mexican Trailrunner said...

Wait! So, the men in Salem, they gather in circles and drum when they take the garbage out? Are they married to the witches? I'd have to go up just to see that!

Tancho, I too prefer the burning of the 55 gallon drum. Coincidentally, it was while living in Talent Oregon that I became accustomed to that method of garbage disposal.

Anonymous said...

Tancho writes of recycling not being all we believe, but a feel good illusion. It takes me back to my junior high days. It was during World War II. FDR had called for all scrap metal to be collected, to be used to make weapons. Our school at Powers, OR worked hard and collected the most scrap metal. It was a logging town, so lots of metal available. The whole town was highly patriotic. Our Student Body President was to go to Portland to christen the ship Sacajawea. But as fate would have it, he had the mumps and our vice President Helen Griswold went instead. Later we learned the collected metals were not used as we were led to believe, but dumped somewhere. The great illusion made us feel proud that we did out part.


Anonymous said...

hahaha!! "Like bad analogies" Your posts are always full of them, like flies on trash. ;-) Alee' (sorry, I couldn't resist)

Anonymous said...

Steve, I just reread my comment and meant to say that your posts are full of analogies - I didn't mean BAD analogies!!! Oh well, at least I refrained from saying "flies on S--t" ;-)

Anonymous said...

The lack of recycling in Mexico is one of the things that does bother me. Especially since everyone (including myself) is drinking so much bottled water, since the stuff out of the tap isn't potable. Or, at least not reliably so.

I'm glad to hear that there are guys collecting aluminum cans. They actually have commercial value. But plastic? Does anyone collect all those plastic water bottles?

I recycle religiously (OK, secularly) at home, but always have this nagging feeling that it's going to end up in a landfill anyway. I hope not.


Kim G
Boston, MA
Where we do have curbside recycling, but also too many guys collecting the trash and heaving it into trucks by hand.

Anonymous said...

A good bit (I would venture to say most) of the plastics picked up for recycling (in the US) is in fact put on ships bound for China where it is burned for fuel to power factories (that probably produce more plastics). I heard this from a guy who owned a small recycling plant in north Portland in 2005. He recycled styrofoam. He did not sell it to China to be burned as fuel. His facility turned it into plastic beads or pellets that were then sold to factories to use a raw materials to make plastic products. However, he said the vast majority of plastics picked up curbside in Portland (at least in 2005 when I talked to him) is sold to China to be used a fuel.

Here in Mexico the poorest of the poor daily root through the landfills to find whatever they can of value, be it scraps of food or materials like metal, glass, etc. Whether you separate out your recyclables or not, most of the time the poor people will root it out in the landfills and find whatever might have a bit of value.

I'm not sure I'd agree that Americans don't like to acknowledge the existence of garbage and therefore want to hide it from view. I prefer to believe it's a matter of sanitation, hygiene, and rules enforced for the common good found in developed nations. Things like protecting watersheds, water sources, and playgrounds, etc from garbage run-off are good ideas for a civilized nation that wants to protect its citizens. Is the US doing a perfect job of that? No. I don't think any developed nation has a perfect track record. (Good lord just look at the oil mess in the Gulf....)

But....I think Mexico could be a better place to live if Mexicans would develop a fondness for "hiding" their garbage as well. The sight of potato chip bags, plastic bottles, dirty diapers & toilet paper, styrofoam Maruchen cups, soda cans, plastic bags, etc all over the streets, roads, and highways here is depressing, distressing, and unsanitary. I know garbage has to go somewhere, but throwing it down as you walk along or ride in a vehicle is not the proper way to deal with it.

Mexico is such a fabulous country, with spectacular natural resources and boundless beauty, but honestly, sometimes it's a stretch to enjoy it or appreciate it for all the darn trash everywhere. (I've lived here since 2005.)

Steve Cotton said...

Katie -- I am a recent convert to the blue cart -- even after I was told by the garbage man that most of the items in the cart end up in the landfill. It is like airport security -- more performance art than effectiveness.

Tancho -- I am well aware of the back yard oil barrel. I see a lot of that -- even in Melaque.

Mexican Trailrunner -- We had burning barrels in Powers, as well. And they worked just fine.

As for the drums. Just another allegory. The plastic containers, when rolled out, sound like the surf in Melaque.

Alee' -- And that is how I read your comment -- with grace.

Kim -- La Manzanilla has a plastic recycling system. I understand it has had its ups and downs. When a product lacks intrinisic value, recycling does nor work.

Mom -- Count on govcernment to give the mere impression of action.

Anonymous -- The litter problem in Mexico always saddens me. I am heartened, though, that the younger generation seems to be picking up on the issue. After all, 50 years ago, American highways were a mess. Habits take time to change.