Tuesday, March 13, 2018

Farewell to recycling

When we moved to the ranch about seven years ago we took to recycling with the fervor of tree-huggers from Portland, San Francisco or Vancouver.

Of course, we set up a three-bin compost pile. And we also began to separate aluminum, cardboard, plastic, regular metal cans, and glass, which we took to a recycling center on the way to San Miguel. We even packed the segregated materials in used twenty-five-kilo bags of dog food to give that plastic an extra go-around.

Sit on my couch and let's talk about it. 
But hold your admiring ahhs and applause: Other than composting, which we use in our vegetable garden, we've giving up on recycling. Adiós.

Truth is that it hardly generated any cash for Félix, who used to take the stuff to recycling center. Last trip to the recycling center with a car full recyclables barely paid three dollars. Glass and cardboard in particular are nearly worthless.

Most of all, recycling in this corner of Mexico is a dispiriting Sisyphean boondoggle. Rather than making us feel like honorary Vancouverites or Californians, it left us feeling like a pair of old fools.

To appreciate the futility of it all you only need to drive on the Carretera a Jalpa, about a kilometer away from our place.

It could well be renamed El Boulevard de la Basura, bordered as it is on both sides not with just an occasional empty beer can or plastic soda bottle, but with an ever growing allée of all sorts of debris, including bags of household garbage, construction rubble, discarded televisions sets, tires, a decommissioned toilet, and even an abandoned couch, in case someone wants to sit and take in the view. Making the optics more depressing is that the road has been freshly paved and striped and equipped with shiny new traffic signs.

More scandalous is the overflow from the burgeoning municipal garbage dump encroaching on the highway that welcomes tourists to San Miguel from Querétaro and Mexico City. Why won't these fly-dumpers (as they used to be called in Chicago) drive a few extra meters and deposit the garbage in the dump, where there is a giant hole waiting for it? And why does the city allow this, the Municipal Office Building being located within clear sight of the dump? It's all a mystery.

Welcome to San Miguel (Municipal Building in the background)
Several years ago, shortly after our arrival and still innocent about the waste-disposal traditions of Mexico, we actually hired a couple of guys and gave them plastic bags to collect the trash on the five kilometers of Jalpa Road between our house and the main highway to San Miguel. We figured that unemployed guys who needed money and trash lying around were a good match.

But when I announced our intentions, their facial expressions hinted at the true nature of the problem: They thought we were nuts to worry about, much less hire someone, to pick up the trash along the road. Why would anyone worry about that except gringos with too much money and not enough sense? Doubts  aside, they went out and did it.

But the accumulation of roadside trash, if anything, resumed with renewed vigor. The obvious truth is that folks around here are not bothered by the sight of their villages—where they live—being surrounded by trash.

Being neither a sociologist nor a garbologist I have no definitive explanation for this indifference, but I'll take a stab at it.

Pit stop. 
Buckets of ink have been spent rhapsodizing about Mexicans' love of their homes and families. Indeed if you walk around San Miguel early in the morning you will see women armed with brooms and buckets of water meticulously scrubbing the sidewalks and curbs immediately outside their homes—but not an inch farther on either side.

There could be overturned bins of garbage just on the other side of the property line and no one will bother to pick it up. A community clean-up campaign would be considered as bizarre as a parade of people dressed  up in lederhosen.

That daily vignette, in addition to the continuing rain of garbage that falls on the land and roads around our ranch, suggests a lack of civic concern for the larger space outside their immediate homes and families.

It may be directly related to poverty and hardly unique to Mexico. I've seen the same thing in Latin American countries I've visited and in inner city neighborhoods in the U.S.

Maybe when you're poor clean streets are the last thing you worry about. Or perhaps it's a function of the sense of alienation rural Mexicans feel from the larger project called the country of Mexico.

Compared that to the new fitness craze Swedes have developed called "plogging". Who said Scandinavians don't have a sense of humor?

Hear this: Swedish joggers have taken to carrying plastic bags and picking up bits of debris along their routes. They are said to be concerned about "saving the planet" or some such loony behavior.

Maybe the Swedes indeed have too much money and don't know what to do with their time. Whatever it is, don't wait for that fad to catch on in Mexico.

Without realizing it, Stew and I were plogging around before the Swedes. We've taken garbage bags along our walks on the countryside around our house to collect empty plastic soda bottles. Our job is that much easier because we tend to walk or amble along rather than jog, never mind attempt anything as accelerated as a hundred-yard dash.

But our clean-ups only seem to make room for more trash and empty bottles, so we've abandoned them. Our frustration was compounded by the occasional passerby looking at us quizzically as if we were Martians collecting flying saucer fuel for the trip home.

Just outside our gate, we've set up a little test for Félix, which he has failed. One of those ubiquitous  two-liter plastic Coke bottles lies on the road beyond, waiting to be collected. We've waited for a few weeks and I'm sure it hasn't even occurred to him to bend down, pick it up and put in one of our trash cans.


  1. Some times you just have to give up on changing people and love them as they are.

    Robert Gill
    Phoenix, AZ

    1. That is a sage piece of advice, Robert, though sometimes tough to follow. Wish more gringos here did just that instead of spending so much time and effort trying to turn Mexicans into middle class Americans.

      Thanks. Good to hear from you.


  2. Where we live in Canada, we have a compost bin and a garbage bin, which are collected bi-weekly. Metal, glass, plastic and paper are separated into biodegradable bags which are picked up monthly, along with cardboard. As you can imagine, a two week accumulation of compostables gets pretty ripe in the summer. The whole recycling thing takes up quite a bit of room too. We pay $560 a year for this service, and the disposal company makes a profit from the fruits of our labour. We occasionally get notes chiding us for improper sorting.
    Now in the US for winter, where we are, nothing is recycled. It all goes in a bag, then to a dumpster.
    We had the same situation as you in Patzcuaro. Streets and sidewalks scrubbed clean, but since we lived beside the only vacant lot on the street, it became the dump, even though there was free garbage pickup 3 times a week.

    1. Your description of the recycling program in Canada makes it sound as if you live in another planet, far, far away. Actually many American cities have sorting and recycling programs of one type or another. The idea of the company making a profit is really interesting. It might work here though I doubt neighbors will go through the trouble of sorting out materials for pick up unless there was something in it for them other than civic virtue.

      Thanks for your comment.


  3. In Boston, I live across the street from a city park. Every spring, one of my more civic-minded neighbors organizes a park cleanup. The city provides trash bags, and then we neighbors get together to pick up all the trash that has accumulated over the past year. My civic-minded neigbor says that in decades past, there were some truly large hauls, like old cars, mattresses, appliances, etc. But now it's basically just litter, and about 50 of us get together to pick it up. Since we live near a beach, there's also a beach cleanup, but somehow I keep missing that one. Meanwhile, I and my neighbors pick up trash in front of and around our houses. It keeps the neighborhood tidy and ensures that it remains a nice place to live.

    But in Mexico, the attitudes are completely different, a lot like in the USA in the 60's before the anti-litter campaigns began in earnest.

    Sounds like you guys have truly learned a different lesson in culture. Sorry it came the hard way. By the way, I wrote something similar on my own blog a while back. In Mexico City, the local authorities urge people (via posters) to "make a difference," but then don't provide enough public trash cans. It's a constant battle.

    Thanks for at least caring, even if it turned out to be pearls before swine. What matters is that you make an effort, not necessarily that your effort makes a difference.


    Kim G
    Redding, CA
    Which is mostly tidy. Except where it's not.

    Noted blog post: https://gringosuelto.wordpress.com/2016/05/06/mexicos-other-internal-war/

    1. Stew also says that during the 50s and 60s it was common for families traveling to throw empties and other garbage out the window of their cars, and that that changed when somebody launched a nationwide anti-littering campaigns.

      Thank you for your kind comment about efforts. Sometimes it gets pretty depressing around here.

      I'll read your blog postings.

      Hope your mom is OK.


  4. We put our household compost around our fruit trees on our back lot, about a quarter mile from the house. The local wildlife eats what it wants and the rest rots into the ground around the trees. The daily journey "outback" gives the dogs a bit of air and Linda and I a walk. We clean the roadsides in our area a few times a year-lots of beer cans. There's a swamp down the road where the local retrobates dump big stuff, it looks like hell for a few weeks until it sinks out of sight. Local folklore says they lost a traction engine in that soup when they were driving the pilings for the road. True ? Who knows.
    I do recycling but I think it is short sighted, we should put it all in landfills. Fifty or sixty years from now, those landfills will be 5 star resources for mining metals and plastics. They need good liners and the gas should be captured but trust me, they are going to be valuable one day.

    Being a man of some years and a lifelong country dweller, I remember when every house had a dump out back. My Grandfather's hillside dump was something of an issue when we sold the farm in the 90s. I remember sifting through the household dumps as a kid looking for returnable bottles. I know of two old dumps that people who collect old bottles mine for their collectables.

    It is going to be worth something one day.

    1. In Cuba, where I came from, I remember people going house to house to collect food scraps that were fed to the pigs, which seemed to thrive on it. It's admirable pastime for you and your wife to make the rounds to collect beer cans. Around here we have brush fires every year that seem to consume a lot of the waste, except of course for cans. The city here has a huge "landfill", essentially a giant hole in the ground, where they could put a lot of garbage if they ever got organized. I don't know about people after us digging around for our after-shave bottles. I don't think they would be that interesting unless they wait a thousand years or so—assuming there are any humans still around then.