San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Leaders Lack Solution For Garbage Problem

MORE than two decades after the governmentdeclared the problem of garbage disposal a nationalemergency, the nation still lacks a long-term policy forsolid-waste management.“We pollute our rivers and pastures with trash; wepollute our rivers and oceans with raw sewage. It iseveryone’s fault, and everyone’s problem. Costa Ricais reaching a critical moment where the trash problemis becoming a crisis,” said Juan José Echeverría, executivepresident of the Institute for MunicipalDevelopment (IFAM). The institute represents thecountry’s 81 municipalities, which by law are responsiblefor trash collection.Public health officials say a third – or more – of the country’s trash is not being disposed ofproperly.Every day, each of Costa Rica’s morethan 4 million inhabitants produces anaverage of one kilogram of trash, accordingto Bernardo Monge, director of theDepartment of Human EnvironmentProtection at the Ministry of Public Health.This amount continues to grow, though byhow much is anyone’s guess because eachmunicipal government handles its ownwaste disposal.In the nation’s capital, the amount ofgarbage produced by homes and businesses– currently 450 metric tons per day –increases by 5-7% per year, according toMario Vargas, the director of administrativecontracting for the Municipality ofSan José.“COSTA Rica is sold as a tourism destinationthat is committed to conservation.But the reality is we are swimming intrash,” said Juan José Obando, generalmanager of Berthier EBI de Costa Rica,which manages the only landfill withinSan José city limits: the private La CarpioEnvironmental Technology Park.“Go to almost any beach, forest or riverand you will find trash there. Touristscome to the country and feel deceived,cheated,” he said.The country’s lack of vision in thisarea, Obando said, is among the reasonsthe Canada-based company has threatenedto pull out of Costa Rica (TT, July 8).“Each administration has a differentperspective on the treatment of solidwaste, its own way of trying to resolve theproblem. But they make decisions withoutconsulting the private (waste-management)companies, namely EBI and WPPContinental, so the companies are forcedto adjust to the decisions,” he added.The trash problem has been part of thecountry’s agenda for 30 years, according toObando, but no real solutions have beenfound.Echeverría agreed.“Today, we are facing serious problemsbecause of the trash. And while there arelots of ideas, no solutions have been found.No political will exists,” he said.MONGE, from the Health Ministry,says 60-65% of the nation’s trash is beingdisposed of “adequately” in the CentralValley’s four main landfills: La Carpio, inwestern San José; Río Azul, in La Unión,east of San José; Oreamuno, in Cartago,farther east; and Los Mangos, northwest ofSan José in Alajuela.The rest of the nation’s garbage is notbeing managed properly, according toMonge. Trash is carted off to open-airdumps, without any type of treatment, inoutlying cantons such as the Caribbeanport city of Limón, the southernCaribbean coastal region of Talamanca,parts of the northwestern province ofGuanacaste, San Carlos in the NorthernZone, Sarapiquí in the northern plains,Turrubares, near the central Pacific-slopetown of Orotina and Pérez Zeledón, in theSouthern Zone. The management of trashin the central Pacific port town ofPuntarenas is among the worst in thecountry, according to Monge.Municipal governments in Costa Ricaare required to manage their canton’strash, but meeting this responsibility hasproved to be a challenge for numerousmunicipalities.LOCAL governments lack politicalsupport, according to Echeverría.“Municipalities are the stepchildren ofthe Costa Rican government. They are notgiven the support they need to deal withtheir responsibilities, including trash collection.We demand positive results (fromlocal governments), and yet we do nothingto strengthen them,” he said.Many municipalities have had to facethe wrath of the community over the issue of garbage. In Aserrí, south of San José,where EBI is planning a landfill; in CiudadColón, southwest of San Jose, where privatedevelopers have requested permissionfor a landfill (TT, April 8); and in the westernCentral Valley town of Naranjo, wherethe municipality is considering a landfill toreplace its open-air dump (TT, April 29),activists have spoken out against the projects.“It is a very delicate issue. Nobodywants landfills. Everyone criticizes thetrash problem, but no one wants to makeany decisions,” Echeverría said.OTHER communities have troublewith trash collection.This week, municipal trash collectorsin Tibás, north of San José, went on strike,claiming the municipality isn’t providingthem with the tools needed to do their job,including shovels and brooms to clean thetrash off the streets.It’s not the first time Tibás has facedrefuse problems. Last year, residents ventedtheir anger at the garbage not being collectedfor several weeks by depositing hundredsof bags filled with trash in front ofmunicipal offices. The mayor claimed thebudget the Municipal Council approved forthe city garbage trucks wasn’t enough tocover costs.After receiving a warning from theHealth Ministry, the municipality begancollecting rotting piles of waste towardthe end of November (TT, Nov. 26, 2004).The following month, in the Pacificbeach town of Sámara, where the municipalityhadn’t collected garbage in weeks,residents finally got action after they collecteda truckload of their trash anddumped it in front of the municipal officesin Nicoya (TT, Jan. 28).Residents of Tortuguero, on the northernCaribbean coast, said they fight a continualbattle with trash and are furiousabout the lack of help from theMunicipality of Pococí, located approximately50 kilometers away by boat.Pococí Mayor Manuel Hernández toldThe Tico Times the situation is uniquebecause Tortuguero residents do not paythe quarterly trash collection fee charged toall other residents of the canton. He saidthe municipality requires more funding tocollect the remote community’s trash on aregular basis.A big part of the problem with municipalities’ability to manage their waste,according to Monge, is their “antiquated”system of collecting trash fees.“It’s a medieval system. Fifty percentof the population pays and the other 50%doesn’t. There are no fines. Costa Ricanpeople don’t pay and yet we demand services,”Monge said.Because only about half the populationpays its trash bill, municipalities oftendon’t have enough money to cover the costof collection, he said, adding he supports asystem where residents must pay theirtrash fees as part of their electricity, wateror telephone bills.“If someone’s water is shut off, theyimmediately go pay the bill. Unfortunately,the same doesn’t happen withoverdue garbage bills,” Monge said,adding that he submitted his proposal toIFAM three years ago, but isn’t sure of theoutcome.IFAM’s Echeverría told The TicoTimes he thinks it’s a great idea, but itwon’t happen anytime soon.“IFAM doesn’t have the authority tomake decisions of this type. We don’t haveauthority over ICE (the Costa RicanElectricity Institute) or AyA (the NationalWater and Sewer Institute),” he said. “Wewould need to change the laws in theLegislative Assembly to make such a systempossible.”ANOTHER weak link in Costa Rica’swaste-management chain is the lack ofcomprehensive and mandatory recyclingprograms.“Right now, it’s practically impossibleto fine people for not separating or reducingtheir garbage,” Echeverría said.Monge agreed.“We have no process of behaviorchange,” he said. “In Europe, people bringreusable bags with them to the supermarkets.Here, people go shopping and bringhome 35 plastic bags.“It’s not lack of education, but ratherlack of punishment. We must learn fromthe more organized countries. Countrieswith the highest development indicatorsalso have the steepest fines for littering.That’s no coincidence,” Monge said.Only a handful of municipal governments,including San José, western suburbEscazú, Alajuela, northwest of the capital,and San Rafael de Heredia, to the north,have begun voluntary recycling programs.In other communities, especially beachareas such as Puerto Viejo, on the southernCaribbean coast, and Playa Hermosa, onthe northern Pacific coast, residents havebegun successful recycling programs (TT,May 28, 2004).AN even more serious problem thanthe growing piles of residential garbage,according to Obando, is the country’sroutine lack of treatment of radioactiveand infectious laboratory and hospitalwaste.“No one wants to talk about what happenswith the toxic waste, the hospitalwaste, the radioactive waste, the industrialwaste being dumped into the country’srivers,” he said.An in-depth investigation by The TicoTimes two years ago revealed that untreatedhospital waste – including syringes,vials, fecal matter and infectious andanatomic waste – is regularly discarded inlandfills (TT, Nov. 7, 2003).Only 23% of public hospitals andclinics, which produce about 44 metrictons of garbage per week, properly treattheir hazardous waste before municipalitiescollect it for disposal in landfills,according to a report in the daily LaRepública last month.The government recently announced aplan to equip public hospitals and clinicswith autoclave sterilizing machines, followingthe rejection of a much-discussedplan to contract a private company to collect,treat and dispose of all the country’shospital waste (TT, June 10).Obando, who says EBI was involved inthe discussion to find solutions for hospitalwaste management, told The Tico Timesautoclaves are “a viable, economic solution”for Costa Rica.EVERYONE agrees a real solution tothe nation’s trash problem will requirechange on the part of everyone.“The trash problem in Costa Rica hasbeen growing in the past few decades. Itdidn’t used to be such a problem becausemuch of the waste we generated wasorganic. Coca-Cola and beer came in glassbottles that had to be returned. Baby diaperswere made of cloth and reused.Industry has generated comfort for people,but that comfort goes against the environment,”Echeverría said.“We must establish a new cultureamong citizens, municipal governmentofficials and the private sector. This is anational problem that is bigger than thegovernment. It involves the municipalgovernments, Public Health Ministry,Environment Ministry, industry and businesses,ordinary citizens, the private companieswho manage the landfills,” he said.A Solid Waste Law proposal is in thepreliminary stages in the LegislativeAssembly, according to Echeverría, butneeds a lot more work to deal with theproblem in a comprehensive manner.Monge agrees the country desperatelyneeds to pass a law requiring mandatoryrecycling and trash-reduction measures,but says one is not likely during thisadministration.“The next government will have totackle this issue,” he said, referring to thevictor of the February 2006 presidentialelections.

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