In most Latin American neighborhoods I’ve lived in, it’s custom to throw trash in the street, which is known in English as littering.
The most extreme case was Chapinero, Bogota, where even if you didn’t want to dirty the streets, your garbage bags would become litter by nightfall. The indigentes and crackheads descend upon the streets, like zombies, tearing open trash bags looking for food and recyclables. The streets become a disaster of strewn trash. The Aseo garbage men never get off their trucks without their industrial brooms in hand, because cleaning trash in Chapinero entails just as much sweeping loose trash as picking up bags.
Once I was walking down La Trece, a main avenue which is never free of litter or ripped trash bags, with a visiting gringo when I tossed a piece of trash. He voiced his disapproval, as if I were out of line. I didn’t reply that my piece of trash was one of many, and that the few intact trash bags only had a couple hours of daylight before some zombie crackhead would rip them open and spread their contents over the sidewalk, looking for treasure. I just chalked it up to a gringo out of his element.
But due to my first-world upbringing, I wasn’t comfortable with any and all littering. For example, I wouldn’t throw a water bottle from a taxi window, especially in traffic. I realized how uppity this behavior was when I returned to Peru and shacked up with my wife, Milagros. She would notice me holding on to a bottle in a taxi. She’d take it from me and, without hesitation, roll down her window and drop the bottle onto the street, regardless of whether we were moving. She always did this with a look of satisfaction, as if she’d just finished washing the dishes or cleaning the bathroom. I never stopped getting a kick out of handing her my trash and seeing her prompt disposal and look of satisfaction.
Obviously that had to stop in America. This famous anti-litter commercial starring Indian impersonator, Iron Eyes Cody, helped form the base of gringo uneasiness with litter.
So wifey’s little disposals had to stop. It never occurred to me until she did it in America. She threw a small wrapper out the window while I was driving. I stopped the car as if I were going to put it in reverse, back up, and pick up the trash. I stopped long enough to make sure there were no police in my rearview mirror before putting it back in drive and continuing on my merry way.
But I immediately instructed Milagros never to do that again. Police will stop you in this country for that. Her eyes grew wide in disbelief, and she asked, “¿En serio?” in that singing, exaggerated Arequipa accent, (serioooooooo). Yes, I replied, seriously. The police will stop me and give me a big fine.
Her fruit consumption spiked when she got knocked up, to the point it was difficult to keep apples, oranges, and bananas in stock. One day in the car she was holding an apple core and asked what to do with it. Well that’s not really litter, I told her. It’s natural. Apple cores, orange rinds, banana peels – you can throw that stuff out. Not in somebody’s yard if it’s obvious they cut the grass and care for it, but in general the naturally decomposing stuff isn’t litter. In fact it’s probably less pollutive to discard such waste on public roadsides, where it’s natural fertilizer, than to send it to occupy space in a landfill.
So then one day I’m driving us down a residential street when she opens her window and drops a big plastic bag out the window. I braked so hard she was lightly thrown forward.
What was that?
Peach pits and banana peels, she replied.
She had been storing her fruit and vegetable refuse of the week in one of those plastic bags they use for phone books, the kind with ink printing on each side and which tend to cling to your hand. Much thicker plastic than grocery bags, more like what shopping mall retailers put your purchases in.
I repeated my previous drill, making sure there were no cops around before leaving the scene. On that same block – THE SAME BLOCK – was a street sign warning $500 fines for litterers.
I kindly explained to my wife that all the naturally decomposing refuse is fine to throw away, but not the plastic bag containing it. That plastic bag, if it weren’t picked up and sent to a landfill, would still be on our green Earth in a hundred years. Maybe 200.
Milagros now understands the American distaste for litter. It’s one of those cultural nuances you have to learn on the ground.