Litter in Latin America vs. the U.S.

Posted on 07. Dec, 2013 by in latin america, peru

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.

That ad was part of an entire anti-pollution campaign (see another) called Keep America Beautiful, which still exists today. Every state in the union passed laws mandating fines for “litterbugs.”

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.

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10 Responses to “Litter in Latin America vs. the U.S.”

  1. Casey

    07. Dec, 2013

    AAAAhahahahaha!

    Once I met a gringo backpacker who had bought a bag of fresco on a guatemalan bus. Quieeeen sabe what was in it…white, milky and nasty. So there he was, gringo straight off the plane and right on the bus plowing through the backroads of rural Guatemala with a giant cold bag of fresco that he didn’t want.

    “Just toss it man. Right out the window,” I told him.

    “I can’t do that,” he says. “That’s LITTERING!”

    “Yeah but, you aren’t going to hold that for the next five hours without spilling it. Littering isn’t good but it is the cultural norm. Chuck it.”

    “No, I will just dump out the juice and save the plastic bag,” he says, lowering his window. “I will throw it away when we get to Quetzaltenango,” he says as he undid the knot in the bag. “I wouldn’t want to be blamed for not doing my part to save the planet,” he says.

    And in one swift move he released the contents of the bag out the window of this bus flying around a curve at about 60mph and the contents came right back in the next 5 open windows creaming the local passengers in the face with this thick, white, sticky drink.

    The gringo backpacker looked back, horrified, staring at some young mother who started yelling at him in spanish while wiping clean her infant baby.

    “Dude…ooooh my god,” he said. “What do I do?”

    “Tell em ‘lo siento’ and save the plastic bag so you can throw it away when we get there.”

  2. etype

    09. Dec, 2013

    all litterers must die – you’re the scum of the earth.

  3. Jorge

    09. Dec, 2013

    For some odd reason even being mexicans my parents always hated littering. My brothers and myself hate it as well, we’ve seen what littering does to the streets, the beaches, you name it.
    I think it’s morally wrong, but everything has to be judged in context. Like the Chapinero thing, there was no use to try and not litter, if the Zombies were going to toss everything anyway…

    Basically I agree with “etype” above. Littering is the most typical example of a person who doesn’t care one single bit about his/her immediate environment. Not talking about taking care of the earth, but your city, your neighborhood, your block, your street, tha outside of your house. If you wouldn’t do that at home, don’t do it in the streets.

    I know, I got a bit emotional 😀

    Cheers man! How’s the cold up there?

  4. Estebanh

    11. Dec, 2013

    I’ve noticed that Medellin is relatively clean compared to other Latin American cities. I rarely see trash on the sidewalks and streets and I have seen workers picking up litter on the road. I dont know if the citizens dont litter or if they have good cleanup crews.

  5. petke

    13. Dec, 2013

    About littering in a big city. I understand that its looks untidy. But I never understood how it is “destroying the environment”. Its already destroyed. There is no nature left in a city. Just concrete, steel and asphalt.

    I wonder if it wasnt better for the environment if our trash lay in full view on the side of the road, instead of out of sight and out of mind in some landfill. Maybe then we would actually get serious about minimizing waste and have more packaging made from decomposable materials.

  6. Noah Saenger

    07. Jan, 2014

    I’ve often thought like petke says, keeping it in view might discourage the PRODUCTION of so much waste.

    I sent you an email Colin, want to send you something cool.

  7. Keanu

    07. Jan, 2014

    Where are you these days, my man? Peru or Colombia?

  8. Rodriguez

    04. Aug, 2014

    Don’t generalize.

    Just because you uneducated wife does it, it does not mean its not frowned upon in most countries outside of Peru.

  9. CESAR

    28. Oct, 2014

    Great Article

  10. gabrielle

    08. Mar, 2017

    Agreed!

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