I was feeling guilty about the chilaquiles I’d just eaten. Not the fact that they were fried in oil, slathered with cream and sprinkled with cheese. I’d made a conscious decision to go down the road of High Fat. Nor did I feel bad about spending the 35 pesos (about $3 US). They came with a delicious bread roll, creamy refried beans, fluffy scrambled eggs and fresh squeezed orange juice – a good value for breakfast. But I wished they weren’t served on a Styrofoam tray. Styrofoam trays are ubiquitous here in Mexico. No one seems to be aware of what a horrible choice they are, environmentally speaking. Actually my chilaquiles were served to go, with another Styrofoam tray put on top as a lid. These were then slid into a small plastic bag which was put into a larger plastic bag, along with the roll, a napkin and a plastic fork, and the OJ (also in a bag tied shut with a straw in it). So, let’s see, my delicious three dollar breakfast came with one, two, three…seven pieces of non-biodegradable trash plus one paper napkin. Crap!
This is something you can’t help notice when you travel. I’ve seen some of the worlds greatest art, most fascinating ruins, and unforgettable natural wonders. I’ve also seen a whole lot of trash. I traveled through South East Asia during the dry season, but I could tell where the high water level of the Mekong river was by the line of plastic bags in trees. Reflecting on this, I’ve come to see that there are two separate issues; producing trash and disposing of it.
I live in a “developing” country and litter is everywhere. I haven’t quite figured out the mentality. Women mop their houses every day. They sweep and hose down the street in front of their homes. But the same people will chuck a bottle or bag out of car window without a second thought. When I’ve asked people about this I get told, “Look for thousands of years the package was a banana leaf or a corn husk (as opposed to plastic bag or Styrofoam plate) and you could throw it on the ground. You can’t expect people to change what they’ve been doing for centuries that quickly.” But I don’t really buy that explanation. It took the people of the world about five minutes to adjust to using cell phones. Why would learning to use a garbage can be any harder?
I come from an especially clean State in a clean country. There are exceptions, but generally speaking, you will not find piles of litter. We are “clean and green.”
Or are we? Look at a “rubbish map” and it seems clear that the places that seem clean (so called “developed” countries) actually produce way more trash per capita than places that look “dirty”. What’s going on?
A big part of the equation may have to do with population density. A friend of mine upon seeing a heap of trash in a neighborhood in India asked her guide why they don’t they take the garbage some place. “This is the place, Ma’am,” he replied. In more developed countries, with smaller populations, we can throw something away and it can actually be “away” from us. But that’s a luxury of having few people and lots of space.
And of course, garbage doesn’t always land where it’s produced. On the north shore of Utila I found myself ankle-deep in tiny shards of multi-colored plastic. Clearly trash from all over the Caribbean was washing up on that beach, but holy shit! It was A LOT of plastic. We should take better care of our oceans.
Here in Mexico, people throw away a lot less stuff (by stuff I mean all of those the things that we want, but don’t need). For one thing, stuff is expensive, so it’s not viewed as disposable. It’s easier to get things repaired. And if you’re truly done with something, you pass it on to a neighbor or family member. I know of no Goodwill stores intercepting and trying re-circulate people’s household excess on its way to the landfill. People don’t have that much excess in the first place.
I wish the two worlds could learn from each other- that people here would be more aware of the problems caused by plastic and Styrofoam, and that they would put their litter in a trash can. But in the Big Picture, it’s probably just as important for the planet that people in my home country learn to consume less in the first place. We need to break the cycle by which what is good for the economy (and therefore, people’s lives) is bad for the environment.
I don’t know how to solve the world’s problems, but at very least, I had to do one of two things. Either give up chilaquiles (which would probably be good for the waist issue as well as the waste issue). Or walk into the restaurant with my own reusable container and ask them to put my chilaquiles in that. I was hesitant to do this. Now that I’ve been here several years, the clerks at my local shop know that I always bring my own canvass bags. But I remember the looks I got when I first started telling them “no bolsas, por favor”. I might as well have had three heads. And the girl at the breakfast cafe already stares at me as if she’s never seen a “guera” before. But the thought of those spicy, fried tortillas gave me courage and these days I always arrive with a Tupperware container. The chilaquiles taste even better.