Trash in Costa Rica

Trash in the streets?  Yuck!  Costa Rica might be full of nature preserves, but like the U.S., it is producing waste at an alarming rate!  The government hasn’t done a lot to help, but individual citizens are taking matters into their own hands! 

Costa Rica is known for its “eco-tourism,” but littering and waste are actually big problems here!  Even though 25% of this country’s land is made up of national parks and nature reserves, a lot of waste is produced here, and little of it is recycled.  Out of the 11,000 tons of solid waste produced here everyday, some say almost a third of it is simply dumped in private lots and bodies of water!  A good amount of it ends up on the street.  Up until around 70 years ago, most of Costa Rica’s waste was natural, and came from its plants and animals.   Now that Costa Rica has become a wealthier country, people buy and produce more packed and “disposable” things and create more waste. KRcGBKTLEdozGwHarx-pPDzxBHHgTDKGBzInfoFOyIo

In the United States, we sometimes ignore problems that aren’t right in front of our faces.  We can’t always see the damage being done to the earth when we pollute it by making plastics, or fill it up with garbage that leaks chemicals into the ground.  We don’t think about the fact that we end up eating those chemicals when we eat animals or food products that are grown on that ground, and that they make us sick.  We also don’t worry when we throw away things that the earth is going to run out of, like the aluminum that makes the cans we drink soda from. Since we can’t always see this problem as well as we see our other problems, we don’t worry about it.  In Costa Rica, it is the same.   Some people simply choose not to think about the consequences of creating waste and pollution.

One way that some countries have addressed the issue of littering and wastefulness is advertising campaigns.  When people see messages on billboards and on television that reminds us of our impact on the environment, we start to think about it more often, and change our behavior.  Unfortunately, the Costa Rican government hasn’t launched a campaign like this in a long time.   In 2010 the government passed a law holding people and businesses responsible for how they dispose of their waste.  This cut down on dumping, but it didn’t solve the problem of how much waste is produced!

Recycling is available, but not common.   In Heredia, recyclable materials are not picked up at the curb, so people have to bring them to the recycling center. Unfortunately, few households actually do this. Many families, like my host family, know that recycling materials is much better for the environment than throwing them away, but they do not go out of their way to do it.  My host family doesn’t have a car to carry their bottles and cans to the recycling center, but even if they did, I am not sure they would do it.  Colleges and businesses recycle, but it is still so inconvenient for private households that they often don’t do it.  My college has bins for recycling, but only on a few places on campus.  Many of the buildings only have trashcans, so a lot of recyclable bottles and cans are thrown away.

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One way Costa Ricans have figured out how to motivate people to recycle is with deposits.  Here in Costa Rica, you can recycle some kinds of bottles by returning them to the place you bought them. When someone buys a coke or a beer in a glass bottle, they pay an extra deposit, or a few cents more than the beer should cost.  Later, that person can bring it back to the supermarket or corner store, and get those few cents back.  These bottles are sent back to the manufacturer and used again.  That way people have a reason to save their bottles rather than toss them in the trash.

Local citizens are also taking matters into their own hands. On my campus at the National University of Costa Rica, students are concerned that we are wasting too much.  Student volunteers get together twice a week to sort through the recycling and trash bins.  They pull recyclables out of the trash, and makes sure the aluminum, paper, and plastic are all properly separated and ready to go. My friend Brent, who came from Las Vegas, Nevada, to study here in Costa Rica, decided to help out.  “You get sweaty and gross and you smell like garbage afterwards, but it feels good to know this good stuff won’t end up in a landfill,” he told me.

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Finally, when it comes to reducing the amount of waste, every person can make a difference. There is a man in San Jose named Rodrigo, who goes on a walk early every morning with a big garbage bag in his hands.  He walks for about forty minutes, and he fills that garbage bag with recyclables he finds littered on the ground.   He picks up a few pounds everyday, and takes them to the recycling center.  “It helps me exercise, get outside, and do something for the environment,” he said.  Rodrigo calculated that if every Costa Rican citizen did this, they could take care of over a third of the amount of solid waste produced every day in Costa Rica!  He said he has gotten a few of his friends to do it too.

I have lived in neighborhoods in the U.S. where nobody recycled, even when you could have just put the recyclables out on the curb to get picked up! Why didn’t they do it?  I think it was because nobody else did or even talked about recycling.  People in that neighborhood were worried about money problems and family members who were sick or getting into trouble.  They lived in the city, and the thought of the “environment” felt like some forest faraway, not something that was real and important.  I think in Costa Rica it is the same.  The more separate we are from the earth, the more we take it for granted that there will be enough gasoline to run our car, enough aluminum to package a soda, enough clean water that we can flush the toilet, enough bees to pollinate our fruits and vegetables.  But this is not the case.  Actually, we depend on this earth for our survival.  And if we do not change our behavior, it may not keep giving us what we need.

I hope that Costa Ricans and Americans start thinking more about the waste we make and trying new ways to produce less.   We can carry reusable bags and Tupperware to take food to go.  We can recycle our bottles and cans, and pick up litter on the side of the road.  And like Rodrigo, we can start a trend that other people want to follow!
More information about Costa Rica:

Trash cans located on public streets: Yes

Individual homes recycle trash: Some

Grocery stores charge money for plastic bags: Some.

Grocery items are heavily packaged with plastic: Yes and no.  There is far less than in the United States.  Fruits and veggies, cheese, bread, meat, and jelly can be bought fresh or in bulk, but are unfortunately stored in plastic bags and not reusable containers. Crackers and cookies have a lot of plastic.

People drink tap water: Yes

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