Leela’s Communities Field Note

Recycling in Spain: a mixed bag.

The good news: Spanish young people think that recycling is very important, theoretically speaking. The bad news: unfortunately, they don’t do much about it.

Recycling is an easy word to learn in Spanish: reciclaje (re-see-cla-hey). To implement reciclaje, however, and make sure that people and companies participate is more difficult. In Madrid, Spain, some infrastructure exists to enable recycling but the educational, political and economic motivation that requires a community to really start recycling has not taken off yet.

Before we jump into the specifics, let’s do a quick survey. Do Spaniards

  • Have trash cans located on public streets: yes!
  • In individual homes recycle trash: well, sometimes… read more to find out
  • At grocery stores charge money for plastic bags: yes, they do! 5 cents/bag.
  • Buy grocery items are heavily packaged with plastic: unfortunately, they do.
  • Drink tap water: yes, but schools don’t have water fountains so many students have to carry plastic bottles.

Accessibility: Each neighbourhood has a set of three large, black recycling bins: one for plastic and aluminium, one for glass and one for paper. The bins stand taller than a person, and as wide as your arms stretched out. This seems accessible, right? Well, what if every neighbourhood only had three single, giant trash cans? Instead, each and every apartment building has a large trash can right in the entrance. You can hop down the stairs, throw open the lid, and haul in your trash. Just like that.

Recycling presents a far greater challenge! First, you must find the bins. Often you will have to walk several blocks to arrive, carrying all of your recycling along with you. The next challenge is how to put your recycling in the bins. Each bin has a small slot through which you must insert your piece of recycling. A bag of sticky bottles and old newspapers must be sorted and individually inserted. So let’s say you’ve arrived at the bins and you’re your recycling sorted: glass, plastic and paper. You start inserting plastic bottles through the round hole and it works fine. What happens when you come upon the rectangular plastic casing from your little sister’s action figure? It’s not the right shape and doesn’t fit into the hole. Which city dwellers will have the patience to return to their home, several blocks away, cut the plastic into pieces, and then return to the bins? Not many.

The glass recycling bin presents the most interesting experience: each time you insert a glass bottle, you hear the clatter of breaking glass! The bins are so high and deep that you can’t insert glass without breaking it! Added to this whole challenge is the fact that the slots on the bins face the road rather than the sidewalk. Imagine trying to recycle in the middle of the road! As you are sorting and inserting your bottles and cans, cars zoom past you and you have to press yourself against the bins to avoid danger. In Spain, recycling is for brave souls!

Public Sentiment: Many families recycle at home, though not with too much vigilance and with varying levels of commitment. Fátima Mayor, a 15 year old Madrid native, told me that “the only thing we do is to separate the plastic from the rest of the rubbish but we don’t do a strict recycling process.” Because the system in Spain requires that you sort all the recycling, homes that really want to recycle must have several bins distinguished for glass, paper or plastic.

My students all feel that recycling matters in theory, but often they don’t recycle very much in practice. Alejandro Pacheco, a 15 year old, writes, “[Recycling] is really important because it doesn’t take too much time and it’s really important for our planet.” Likewise, Beatriz Portillo of the same class writes, “to recycle is a little movement that can help much more than we imagine.” Despite these sentiments, however, these same students don’t have a recycling system in their school and have not requested one.

Local businesses in Spain, and the majority of schools don’t have recycling infrastructure. This means that only a small selection of private individuals in their homes recycle. The school system teachers—briefly—that recycling matters, yet they don’t provide students the proper means to do recycle at school. Most of my students arrive to school everyday with a packed snack and a plastic water bottle. After they finish their water, their choices are: keep it in their backpack and recycle it at home, or throw it away. Most throw it away. Fátima also told me that at school, “we don’t recycle and I don’t know how to make these people recycle. They are too lazy to throw the trash into the recycling, so recycling in this school will be forever impossible.” This sounds depressing, and can hopefully be changed.

Innovative Solutions: My students have suggested putting a recycling system at the school. With enough student help, this could definitely be done! As of now, there are several organizations that work to promote recycling.

Changes to Environmental Law: Because Spain meets the minimum recycling requirements for the European Union, there have been few changes in environmental law. The only change is that pay for recycle and trash collectors has been cut, resulting in drastic strikes and an atrocious accumulation of trash and recycling. The problem with this is that after the recycling bins are full, citizens have no choice but to take their excess to trash bins. When these are full, both trash and recycling piles up on the streets.

Youth groups and community organization: My personal favourite of the efforts in Spain’s recycling scene is the Escuela de Reciclaje, or School of Recycling. This company targets very young students to convince them at an early age that recycling helps the planet, but, more importantly, to encourage these students to take initiative and start recycling programs at their local schools and businesses. The coolest thing about the school is that it’s mobile! That’s right: the educators that work for The School of Recycling drive around in a truck, so they can visit the most number of other schools possible. Because Spain already has recycling bins, what they need to do now is convince more people to use them, and that’s just what the mobile school is trying to do! It’s a very new program (it only started last year) so it hasn’t visited too many schools, but with more programs like this Spain’s youth will start to not only think that recycling matters but to act like it!

Local people with action plans: In Spain, when you move from sophomore year of High School to Junior year, you must choose to specialize in either the humanities (writing, history, language, etc.) or science (biology, chemistry, etc.). Several of my science students have suggested an amazing plan. Juan Martín Ibáñez suggests, “changing the structure of plastic and introducing new atoms that will make plastic bags decompose.” That’s a great idea that will require a scientist to enact. Hopefully Miguel can be that scientist. Another science student featured in the photo suggests, “making biomass fuels that are made from organic matter.” He is suggesting using our recycling and trash to fuel our cars and light our houses. These bright students are the future of Spain’s recycling. Hopefully, they will have the support they need to make a difference!

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