Seeing is Believing? A Look at the Discrepancy Between the Sight of Trash and the Reality of How it is Dealt With

By Benjamin Swift

Over the past year, I had the immense privilege to travel to Peru, Bolivia, Ecuador, and Haiti, and among the innumerable cultural differences I encountered during my travels, the differences in trash between these developing countries and the United States particularly struck me.

Trash is a puzzling phenomenon. We buy goods at the store neatly enveloped in colorful, eye-catching packages, only to take them home, use what’s inside, and toss the packaging so it is gone and forgotten.

Photo by Benjamin Swift

In the U.S., we amass it liberally—whether it’s our morning coffee grabbed before class, another Amazon order, a routine trip to the grocery store, or a meal at a restaurant, waste seems inevitable in much of what we do and consume. Whether our trash is eventually buried or dumped wwin Haiti or in the Atlantic and Indian Oceans—as in the Khian Sea incident—trash never really goes away. But the ubiquity of waste in our society is easy to overlook with such well-developed systems to obscure it from view.

During my time spent in the developing world, however, it was clear that trash is prominently present—shores of the sea and the ditches alongside roads become designated landfills. In my Bolivian homestay family, Sunday was trash day, which meant that after gathering the week’s waste, we would burn it in the backyard where my mother would fan the smoldering fire of plastics, papers, and other non-compostable refuse. Though some families sent their trash to the local landfill, there was no organized collection system, and they had to pay for a taxi to take it there.

However, just because Americans can conceal trash, is it better? American visitors to developing countries like Bolivia often find the visual pervasiveness of garbage shocking, though most have never visited a landfill anywhere. Moreover, it would be incorrect to assume that Americans follow more sustainable practices than their counterparts in less wealthy nations. In fact, most people in developing countries consume dramatically less than the average American; the difference is that the trash they create is much more conspicuous. According to the World Bank, the average American produces nearly 40 pounds of trash per week, while the average citizen of a lower income country (making $975 or less per capita per year) produces just over nine pounds of waste per week.

Though I’ve always been conscious of my impacts on the environment I became acutely aware of the ramifications of my daily decisions while I was abroad as I was constantly surrounded by the tangible reminder of trash’s permanence.

Much of the U.S. has embraced a throwaway culture, making it remarkably easy to produce vast amounts of trash without thought. Fortunately, there are many simple ways we can minimize our impact. For example, we can bring our own reusable shopping bags to the store, carry our own coffee mugs, keep a metal fork in our backpack or purse, and ask for our drinks without straws. If we collectively begin taking small steps to reduce our impact, together we will make a difference to protect the world in which we wish to explore and recreate.

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