June 25, 2010

On Trash

Check out this post over at Middle Savagery. Colleen Morgan talks about the prevalence of TRASH in the Middle East, and asks, "Why do people litter?" Here is a small slice of the discussion:
It’s hard to escape it in the Middle East–loads of garbage lining the streets, blowing across the desert, and covering the beaches. I was surprised at how shocked and outraged I was the first time I saw people casually throwing large bags and empty bottles out their car windows–we are fairly well-indoctrinated in the States against that sort of behavior, outside of smokers who still toss their butts on the ground. I try to carry a plastic bag with me to the archaeological sites I visit so that I can pick up at least some of the trash, but it feels pretty futile.
In the comments section of Colleen's post, archaeologist Mike Smith brings up Mexico as another example of a place where trash is often strewn about. He writes,
There is clearly regional variation in Mexico – Cuernavaca, a tourist town that used to be our base, is much cleaner than Toluca , an industrial town with few tourists where we work now. We have noticed this in terms of street trash, graffiti, and dead dogs along the highways.

I think I gave up puzzling over Mexican trash years ago. It’s just part of life in Mexico. I don’t have any answers, but I do like the different perspectives you suggest, and I’d be interested in finding a reasonable explanation for the phenomenon, in Mexico and elsewhere.

I usually think of this issue in infrastructural terms, but it's also important to remember that sometimes notions of cleanliness can come down to personal predilections. I have wandered through pretty small pueblos where some houses and surrounding yards are incredibly neat, while others have cars, bottles, and all kinds of other "trash" cast about. This kinda reminds me of the neighborhood where I grew up in southern California; some people had impeccable golf course grade lawns, while others had junked cars piled everywhere. This isn't really an issue that simply pertains to any one particular country--at least not according to my experience. There are plenty of places in the US that have their issues with waste and trash management.

I just came back from a short three week trip down to Baja California Sur, a place where it's pretty easy to see some extremely different social and economic conditions within minutes. As for the trash issue, yes, there are places that have their share of destroyed cars and bottles and all sorts of discarded things. Places like Cabo San Lucas--especially in the more exclusive neighborhoods--certainly don't have this trash problem. Somehow, despite the fact that these homeowners definitely consume their fair share of disposable items, their neighborhoods are stripped clean of any traces of these products. Yet the surrounding colonias--where many of the laborers live--are plagued not only by sanitation problems, but also by a severe lack of power and water. Is this a political issue, or a "cultural" one? It's important to consider factors beyond mere cultural aesthetics.

So why do people litter in the US, Mexico, and the Middle East? Why do people litter anywhere in the world? Do they cast things aside because they're lazy, because they don't care about the environment, or because there is no other place to put things? Do they ditch their cans and bottles alongside the road out of habit? In the US and many other parts of the "west," where most trash is shipped to large landfills, are these societies "cleaner," or do they have the funds, equipment, and infrastructure to take our waste and hide it away out of sight? Just some things to think about. Ultimately there is no single answer...but I have a difficult time accepting the idea that littering can only be understood in "cultural" terms. For a nice coda, have a look at this photo:

Spy Hill Landfill. Photo by D'Arcy Norman.

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