One of the topics we talked about in my Viviendas Saludables program is trash management. In the two rural communities I work in, neither one has any real trash management program in place, and most residents throw their trash in far off places, or simply burn it. As I was giving a talk to families I realized what an immense problem it was, and the solution even more so. How can I really expect that much positive change out of one simple talk and a couple home visits? Most people seemed pretty content with the way things are with the trash, and didn’t see a problem. What to do, what to do???
Peru, among many countries in both the Peace Corps and the real world (whatever that is), has become increasingly focused on issues of environmental sustainability and reducing contamination from various industries and sources. Children are taught all about the need to save the environment and learn all kinds of cool slogans, hold song and art contests and anything you can think about to get the message out. Government news stories focus on environmental stories, including conservation and general feel good fillers. However, the majority of Peru still handles waste and contamination in a poor, environmentally unfriendly fashion.
Let’s start at the school. Although kids participate in poster contests about caring for the environment, they still throw their plates and papers on the floor – not even in a waste basket. Recycling is generally out of the question – the school said they tried but kids, no matter how much class time given to the subject, kept on throwing their trash into every container and not separating it. Old habits die hard, and is an example why trash and sanitation is one of the hardest and exhausting jobs a volunteer can have, and it never really looks like that.
The thing with trash is, it’s not necessarily a physical project with garbage cans, trucks and landfills. Rather, it’s a holistic and behavior change project, where people have to alter their day-to-day habits in order for positive actions to take affect. Separating the trash, while seemingly simple, can be a grueling door-to-door effort where little immediate change happens. People have to be convinced that their changes are for the better, and will directly benefit them and/or their families. There is a need to understand that burning your trash is dangerous and toxic, and simply throwing it out into uninhabited territory contaminates the environment, even if you can’t see it.
And what to do with the trash? It’s not only trash, but volunteers and community leaders must also think of all the R’s in trash management – reduce, reuse, recycle, repair, reject, repurpose, etc… All of these help with trash management by reducing the general output of trash, thus reducing the demand for recollecting services and landfill space. Especially if you’re trying to work in the town, community or even just a section of the town, you’ll need backing and support by the municipality. Man-hours have to go into doing a trash analysis (collecting trash from a sample population in the town for 8 days, and then sorting and weighing the material). After that, the municipality and community partners need to talk with residents, usually door to door, about project plans and what is needed from the residents (trash sorting, for example). Then it’s on to training the Municipality workers about any new programs (recycling, composting) and sort that all out.
Even in the small rural community setting, trash management is a task in itself. Community members must first see the need to change the way they manage trash beyond ‘the gringo says so’. After that, families must practice seperation of organic materials, inorganic recyclable, inorganic non-recyclable (which can be further broken down), and then toxic, and then a solution must be found for each type of trash (composting, feeding it to the animals, micro rellenos, recycling, battery collection) and followed through. This process can take months before anything is achieving…finding a buyer for recycled material, families using micro-rellenos, not finding batteries thrown on the ground.