A Trash Problem

El Salvador has a trash problem.  This is not a new situation. This is not a new story.

If you walk around El Salvador, you spend a fair amount of time
walking over stuff like this.

I have been thinking about trash, storm drains, rain. I cleaned out the storm drains near my church in the US this weekend - always needed after a windy day. Our alley sometimes floods, and it's better to be proactive than to mop up water in the church kitchen. 

Storm drains along paved roads in El Salvador are no joke. They are gigantic openings where curbs should be and are never covered by grates.  In a rainstorm, a small cow could literally be swept down into one of those things. Naturally, as a convenient hole that goes to who-knows-where, people see the storm drain abyss as an excellent place in which to sweep street trash, especially along the busy thoroughfares in San Salvador. (Someone told me once that this is actually illegal, but I still see people do it.) In small communities trash gets swept into piles, carried off to bigger piles in buckets or wheelbarrows, is burned intentionally, spontaneously combusts along roadsides, gets spread around, blows around and gets swept again. 

During the dry season, spontaneous trash fires can get out of control.

This is not to say that sanitation workers do not do their jobs.  They do! Garbage trucks and small carts pushed by city workers carrying homemade brooms consistently make their rounds. They sort out recyclables. They work hard. There simply is a lot of garbage. 

The street, after an event in San Salvador. Hopefully it was swept.

There was a time when everyone in El Salvador seemed to toss their garbage out of bus windows and into the streets.  There was a time when many communities had no system for managing trash and the trash just became imbedded in the soil and brush as part of the landscape.  That is still true in some places.  

This is an example of trash gradually becoming the walkway in 
a community. If you were to dig down, you would find trash upon 
trash, much of it not decomposing into the soil.

Really excellent efforts have been made to teach families about composting, recycling, re-using, the dangers of burning trash and the impact of plastics in the waterways. Churches, schools, and activist groups have had an impact in communities. The government has made efforts to put trash receptacles in parks and public spaces. Yet garbage pick-up is one of those services which falls prey to political manipulation.  If a mayor is unhappy with a town in their jurisdiction, letting the garbage pile up there can be a smelly slice of revenge.  If the municipal budget is not managed well, garbage collection can be one of the first services to be impacted.

New trash receptacles installed in a community along the main access road
where trucks can pick it up.  

A main road was lined with trash piles like this one (and much larger) when local pick-up
was delayed right after the last elections.

So, while El Salvador certainly isn't the only country in the world with a trash problem, El Salvador has a trash problem, and the rainy season is when accumulated garbage makes its move.

When the pathways in a community are strewn with trash, or when
trash management consists of piling it in a corner of the yard,
the rainy season produces rivers of trash on the move. Eventually,
it makes its way out to the ocean.

How can international partnerships help?

As global citizens and as workers in collaboration with friends in El Salvador, what can we do to multiply the environmental work which the Salvadoran Lutheran Church and other churches are doing? What can we do to support governmental and non-governmental environmental efforts in El Salvador? How can we do good and importantly, do no harm? Here are just a few thoughts from my perspective:

  • Learn.  Learn about what the churches and environmental groups in El Salvador are doing. Ask for photos and stories from  youth events, trash-clean-up events, and environmental education workshops. Share your similar home experiences with your Salvadoran companions so they can learn about what your church and community are doing to help with its trash problem.
  • Support.  Support efforts which Salvadoran communities and organizations are making to clean up their communities and keep them clean.  While a little economic investment might be helpful, support in the way of encouragement is really important.  Replicate projects from El Salvador in your own church or community setting. (We all have trash problems!)
This is a small and simple solution which helps to keep
dogs from digging in the trash and scattering it about.
  • Live cleaner.  Live cleaner not only when traveling, but live cleaner at home. Think about the trash which you produce as a person, family, church, and community.  All of our trash and our management or mis-management of it impacts ALL of us.  We all live on the same planet.  
  • Donate wisely.  Minimize trash when choosing donations - this goes for items which are carried to El Salvador, shipped to El Salvador or purchased in El Salvador. Ask trash-intelligent questions, such as:  Is this item multi-use or single-use? Will this item break quickly? Is this item needed? Does this item have excessive packaging? Where will the packaging end up? Where will this item end up when it is no longer useful? 
  • Be active.  Be active in your own community and in El Salvador.  Ask about environmental advocacy events and participate together during visits.  Share photos, knowledge, and strategies with each other. Be aware of environmental issues and legislation at home and in El Salvador.
This is shortly AFTER garbage pick-up happened.  Sometimes the garbage sits
by the road long enough that it just becomes one with the embankment.

This is an example of something that is common in El Salvador,
and which is really annoying.  EVERYTHING comes with extra plastic.

As a result of the pandemic, globally, we are producing more trash than ever.  I cannot walk around my city without stepping on a discarded mask.  Notice, I did not say which country that city is in, because this is true no matter which country I am in.  As global citizens, I hope we can encourage one another, to produce less trash, to make environmentally wise choices, and to spend some of our safe, outdoor time picking up trash. 

As I mentioned, this is not my first story about trash.  Here are a few others:

Something to Think About

What Happens if the Beach Turns into Plastic?

Check out this park on a reclaimed garbage dump


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