Conserving the Earth one recyclable at a time

Wispy clouds skirted across the baby blue sky as we careened through the paved and gravel roads leading out of Cusco, Peru.

Cusco, a city whose elevation is twice that of Denver, Colorado, is usually the first stop for those heading to Machu Picchu, the famous Incan civilization in the Andes.

The city boasts a high indigenous population, as can be seen along the city outskirts as roads are lined with vendors selling their wares.

As we left the city for Chinchero, I couldn’t help but notice the many bags of trash strewn around homes. Often times, one could see stray dogs scavenging through them in hopes to find their next meal.

Stray dogs in Cusco, Peru, scavenging through city trash.

Peruvian trash that isn’t formally recycled usually ends up being burned, dumped along the streets or in rivers and the ocean.

Unfortunately, the same can be said for the United States.

However, the States’ recycling rate is at about 34 percent, which is staggeringly higher than Peru’s 5 percent rate (last quoted in 2011). Although both countries have their own recycling systems, challenges and budgets, the government of Peru’s goal is to recycle at least 25 percent of total waste in the near future. Its optimistic goal is 100 percent by 2021.

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Many bins around Peru distinguish between types of recyclables.

In order to make this goal a reality, several organizations throughout Lima are formalizing the waste collecting process, including Ciudad Saludable. Ciudad Saludable is the first association of its kind to work with the Peruvian government to give tax incentives to recyclers. Recyclers need only to bring their recyclable finds into formal enterprises, and these enterprises pay them fair wages. Organized waste pickers can earn about 10 times as much as informal waste pickers.

And as long as there is a steady supply of recyclables, this informal industry will continue to flourish around the world. Waste picking can either serve as a supplement to solid waste collection (as it does in Peru) or as the only form of solid waste collection within the country.

However, no matter the country you reside in, there are many steps you can take today to reduce your own personal waste. Here are a few:

1. Bring your own reusable cup when purchasing drinks at cafés.

Many cafés offer discounts for bringing your own cup to fill with the beverage of your choice (including Starbucks and Caribou Coffee on Iowa State University’s campus).

2. Don’t use disposable silverware and dinnerware.

I understand. When you have a friendly grill out, no one wants to be responsible for cleaning up afterward. But did you know that it can take more than a million years for a polystyrene foam product to decompose in a landfill? Its paper equivalent takes more than 20 years. Reading this article will make you think twice about using any disposable cutlery and dinnerware, not only due to environmental concerns.

3. Use reusable, cloth grocery bags.

4. Buy in bulk!

Consider buying in bulk instead of single serve items when possible. Once again, not only can it be cheaper, but it cuts down on waste as you can distribute the items into individual, reusable containers as needed. If you have roommates, consider making a plan for which products everyone would collectively use if bought in bulk. Then, generate a system of buying and compensating each other for purchases.

5. Use reusable water bottles.

Trash clutters the view along this hillside overlooking the Pacific Ocean from Miraflores in Lima, Peru. 

According to Reuters, Peru imports 92,000 tons of polyethylene terephthalate resin (from crude and natural gas) to make bottles every year. Albina Ruiz, the founder and president of Ciudad Saludable, stated that less than half of the bottles are recovered with the rest ending up in landfills or dumps.

Not only is filling up your water bottle instead of consistently purchasing bottled water cheaper, but it also cuts down on water bottle garbage. (And isn’t it fun using those fountains made specifically for your water bottle ??)

For more great ideas on how to reduce your personal waste, try this website or even this one.

Any little bit helps to become a better, more conscientious person tomorrow.


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