San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Learning from the Trash Pickers

Some of them smell quite rotten – as if they frolicked in a pool of dead fish or hugged a decomposing corpse.

But that doesn’t mean we can’t learn something from them.

Now that Costa Rica’s biggest trash depository has locked its gates, the more than 70 people who roamed the Río Azul landfill picking out recyclables are out of work.

The dump closure shouldn’t be only a reminder that there’s not always going to be someone to pick up after our messes, but also that we can’t continue piling up our trash and looking the other way.

About 80% of the trash brought to the country’s landfills is recyclable, according to a recent government report, but only a fraction of that is actually recycled, in part thanks to the buzos, some of whom The Tico Times profiled in recent weeks, and who are now jobless.

The fact of the matter is that there’s no room left in Costa Rica for more landfills – the Central Valley is as clogged with development as it is with exhaust, which explains the recent trend among developers to build upward.

And if Río Azul is an indicator of how future attempts to properly close landfills will go, the country is facing a nightmare having to figure out how to close the 50 open-air dumps around the country that may cause problems for decades or even centuries to come.

It’s time inhabitants started acting more like buzos, and unlock the value in what is generally considered waste.

Instead of trying to open a bunch more landfills across the country, residents must learn to drastically reduce, reuse and recycle.

Not only should the government be providing incentives, such as pay for recyclables and a recycling collection service, but so should businesses. For instance, Sony now offers store credit for recycled PCs.

The bottom line is that people need to take responsibility for the waste they create.

In modern society, nothing demands our imagination more than solutions to the problems our waste concocts.

We applaud efforts by residents in some communities, especially those on either end of the country’s Caribbean coast, who have led initiatives to take on the trash problem by launching recycling programs. The program in the northern Caribbean town of Tortuguero has been blessed with support from the municipal government.

This is what we want to see more of: communityled recycling initiatives backed by the government.

The fact of the matter is that all waste has a cost.

If you aren’t paying to take care of your waste now, the environment is.And eventually, the environment will slip us the tab, which could come in the form of contaminated drinking water and soil, costly landfill closures or the illegal dumping eyesores like the ones seen all around San José.

So let’s think beyond where to dump our trash.

This doesn’t mean just recycling, but creating less waste in the first place.

That’s the truth the buzos have known all along: we’re throwing away too much.


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