Generating, disposing and treating waste has become one of the biggest and most serious problems of Costa Rican culture. The problem is not only a contradiction to the self-proclaimed ecological, diverse and clean reputation of the country, but also accurately illustrates the Tico short sightedness that prevents Costa Rica from becoming a developed nation.
The Tico littering mentality is, in fact, a combination of short sightedness, laziness and pecking order. Many Ticos believe someone else should pick up their messes, as illustrated by going to any fast food restaurant. Rarely do Tico’s pick up their tables and throw their trash in the garbage can.
Government officials lack the vision and commitment of turning waste into lucrative businesses and much needed sources of employment, keeping civilians in the dark about how serious the littering problem is for their health, their communities and the planet. Therefore, Ticos have never worried about what a chocolate bar wrapping or a bottle of water can create when they mindlessly throw it on the street or out their car’s window. They only think of getting it out of their immediate surroundings. They still think recycling is just an ecological trend, not a necessity.
The question remains: What was first, the chicken or the egg? Short-sighted government officials or short-sighted Costa Ricans? As puzzling as that question may be, the reality of this so-called green paradise is changing into a littering nightmare, and faster than anyone imagines.
According to a 2003 report written by Ronulfo Alvarado Salas of the municipal management department of research and development (Dirección de Gestión Municipal Sección de Investigación y Desarrollo) called “Solid Waste,” Costa Rica’s problem became serious in a very short time. Because the waste produced in the country before and during the first half of the 20th century was mostly organic, littering was a minor problem up until the 1950s. However, due to the rapid industrial growth and massive manufacturing, the growing population’s littering habits created a problem that turned into a national emergency reflected in an executive order May 15, 1991.
During the Figueres Olsen administration in the 90s, the department of specific matters (Ministerio de Asuntos Específicos), conducted a study which revealed that up to that point, 55.7 percent of the country’s municipalities were depositing solid waste in outdoor individual garbage dumps, 14.8 perrcent in collective outdoor dumps and the rest in partially controlled dumps. Different associations were formed to solve the waste management problem, which gradually opened a series of landfills and dumps along the different provinces of the country. However, landfills are the oldest waste management method, which consist of burying the garbage and piling it until it reaches its maximum capacity. This leaves the products of leaching and gases untreated unless there is specific equipment to do so, and even though the government has repeatedly announced initiatives to use the energy of leach products and gases, there are still reports that those pollutants are running out of control in the dumps, threatening the subsoil water tables that servcies different communities.
Besides, according to researcher Silvia Soto in her 2005 account on solid waste for the 11th report of the state of the nation (Undécimo Informe sobre el Estado de la Nación en Desarrollo Humano Sostenible), even though the dumps and landfills are working better since local municipalities started hiring private companies as contractors to collect and dump the garbage, the country lacks an integral effort on treating waste and reusable materials and educating the population on the matter. There is even evidence that some of the private contractors are dumping garbage by highways and empty lots in some communities, especially in Limón.
In contrast, private companies banded together in Limón Sunday to pick up mountains of trash along the roadways.
Ms. Soto claimed that there are different programs from the government devoted to educating children about generating waste and keeping communities clean, but no aggressive campaigns have been implemented by the government or the media to tackle the problem and change the littering mentality that has infected Costa Rica for several decades. Two decades ago, the media seemed to be launching an environmental campaign propelled by the government. They broadcast a commercial during some months that showed a family in a car on the way to the beach. Family members were eating and throwing packages, bottles, peels and whatnot out their windows. When they came to a traffic light, a mountain of garbage fell on the car, and a message appeared about not littering. Many Ticos remember that commercial, but no other nationwide campaign followed
All those consulted for this article conclude there is a gap between the need for proper communal waste treatment and the awareness of each individual’s responsibility at the initial phase of that cycle: generating waste. They express concern as to how important the media and schools are for creating a waste-management conscious population committed to eliminating the littering problem. However, they also agree on how the government has not made it a priority to invest in such campaigns, waiting for the private sector to take the initiative. Many private organizations have embraced recycling and educational programs, but. according to Ms. Soto, there is only so much private companies can do, since they do not have access to educating Costa Ricans in a generalized way, and the effort must be complemented by law enforcement and schools in order to be successful.
In terms of law enforcement, several environmental laws have been created, which state the importance of preserving and maintaining a clean environment, such as the Constitution, the general health act (Ley General de Salud), the municipal Code, the environmental act (Ley Orgánica del Ambiente) and the urban planning act (Ley de Planificación Urbana). However, none of these initiatives has any bite when it comes to littering or indiscriminately dumping trash on the roadside or in inappropriate areas.
The old Costa Rican traffic act punished anybody who littered streets with any kind of waste or did not clean their property with fines ranging between ¢5.000 and ¢20.000. The new traffic act – whose enforcement is being postponed for six more months – penalizes citizens who commit the same littering acts with 10 percent of an amount corresponding to the 289.000.-colon base salary of an administrative assistant.
In 1975, the municipal board of San José approved a project to install a waste processing plant to eliminate the landfills, but the government finally decided not to invest in it. Shortly afterwards a German company took notice of the initiative and offered the Costa Rican government a thorough study and affordable plan to purchase its plant and recover the investment from the recycling of metal, paper and plastic (into oil), which the Tico government ignored. To this moment, no plants have been purchased, and garbage is suffocating the biodiversity of the country.
One Reuters article talks about the future plans for waste treatment in Costa Rica. It claims that Costa Rican garbage scavengers are not allowed to enter the landfills to collect their livelihood anymore, since the government wants to solve the problem once and for all, by industrializing solid waste and recovering 70 percent of the generated waste. They hope to cut the country’s greenhouse gas emissions produced in the landfills to zero in 2021. That’s a very ambitious statement for a country that has not cared ever before about its rubbish statements.