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!

Edward O'Connor's chilaquiles.

When you only pay 30 pesos for chilaquiles, they taste just as good, but they don’t come on a fancy plate like this…Photo by Edward O’Connor.

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?

M. Dolly's photo of litter.

One of my tour guides once pointed out that Coke and Pepsi will donate a refrigerator to tiny stores if they’ll paint their logo on the wall. But they never donate a garbage can. Photo by M. Dolly.

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.

Photo by Stan Dalone & Miran Rijavec.

Where does it all go? Stan Dalone’s & Miran Rijavec’s photo of trash in India.

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.

9 replies
  1. Victoria
    Victoria says:

    A great post Jennifer. I am one of the world’s worst polluters by flying tens of thousands of miles each year (I do pay my way through Climate Care) but I’m constantly horrified at the garbage situation all over the world. I do my best to minimise my own waste and I recycle where at all possible and I most certainly never throw rubbish onto the street. But you are so right in the observation that people will take pride in their home but then throw garbage in public spaces. It’s just terrible. And having been to many island destinations on diving trips it is just heart breaking to see plastic bottles and other garbage washed up in pristine environments. Although I think education could help, I believe the best solution is banning the use of styrofoam and plastic so that clean solutions like plastic made from corn and other sensible packaging solutions can become mainstream.

    • Jennifer Choban
      Jennifer Choban says:

      Thanks, Victoria. There are so many challenges to changing these things. Here in Mexico, even when food is served in the restaurant they sometimes put a styrofoam tray on/or plastic bag over the plate. I think because it makes dish-washing easier. And maybe that has value, as water is also something that’s in short supply. I love your suggestion about plastic from corn. I suspect one of the reasons that plastic and styrofoam are so ubiquitous here in Mexico is because this country has more oil than trees. But they’ve also got a lot of corn!

  2. Cindy
    Cindy says:

    This is clearly something you can’t help but notice when travelling. Yet, by being a paying customer/tourist we can influence and change things. We can refuse plastic bags and walk around with ours (in Europe, we already carry our own bags), and refuse straws. It’s not always much, but it’s something !
    It’s clearly a problem in China for example : disposable wooden chopstick are killing forests ! Bring your own chopsticks :)

  3. Cindy
    Cindy says:

    This is clearly something you can’t help but notice when travelling. Yet, by being a paying customer/tourist we can influence and change things. We can refuse plastic bags and walk around with ours (in Europe, we already carry our own bags), and refuse straws. It’s not always much, but it’s something !
    It’s clearly a problem in China for example : disposable wooden chopstick are killing forests ! Bring your own chopsticks :)

  4. La Jefa
    La Jefa says:

    You nailed it! I’ve been to river cleanups in Mexico, afterwards everyone got a t-shirt for their environmental efforts and next day the same people are admiring the river while throwing their snack wrappers and plastic bags into it. I don’t get it – although I have to admit if I spend lots of time in places like that I really have to check myself because I too will start throwing garbage out of bus windows, dropping it on the street, etc. Why is that? Is that just laziness or because we feel like no one is watching or going to fine us? Individually I guess we can just focus on educating one person at a time and hope those people pass it on to their friends and family. That can have the greatest impact.

  5. Louisa
    Louisa says:

    Great post! I remember being in a hill town in India, a place where people went for vacation and honeymoons. I brought up the issue with a couple of Indian tourists staying at the same hotel, saying what a lovely town, but how sad that it was marred by trash everywhere. “It is the lower classes,” one said. “They are the ones who do it.” I have heard this argument before, but have seen people of all economic classes throwing litter.
    In another incident, I was told that Nicaraguans will sweep up leaves, which they consider hideous, but don’t bother with plastic or aluminum or paper, which doesn’t bother them.
    The issue has to do with feeling a larger responsibility than just your own little turf. I think if you’re in survival mode, your mind doesn’t think much beyond that.


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