I get a lot of thinking done while swinging a scythe. Shamefully, today I spent most of my time mentally cursing out the in-laws who had dumped their trash among the bushes I was trying to clear. Bottles, lost shoes, tin cans–I never knew what I was going to hit. How could they be so careless with their land? How could they pollute it like this?

And then a few swings later, my brain recalled similar emotions from my childhood. I used to romp in the back woods of Maine, building forts and castles , climbing trees, and exploring gulches and ravines. There I found much similar items–boots, tin cans, abandoned cars, dirty jars, beer bottles, discarded washing machines. My thoughts then were a lot like my thoughts now.

So maybe it’s not these people, the rational angel on my shoulder insisted, maybe it’s all people everywhere.

Or maybe it’s something else. Maybe it’s poverty.

Brazilian people recycle to survive

When you are poor you can’t afford to throw things away. Recycling and upcycling items can create items that you don’t have the extra money to buy, or help you save money for other items.

Here in rural Brazil nothing is wasted. An oven shelf is converted into a dish drying rack. Plastic soda bottles become plant pots–or, ingeniously, extra light fixtures. Tires are used everywhere–as chairs, walkways, planters. Cleansed paint cans hold dry goods or are cut open and folded into baking sheets. A used showerhead makes a great outdoor sprinkler for the kids. Worn clothing is refashioned into quilts; scraps stuff pillows. An abandoned bus makes a wealth of lawn chairs–enough for your family as well as all the friends you invite to your next barbecue.

Yankee ingenuity or Brazilian jeitinho?

I surprise my in-laws with my creativity in re-using items and my willingness to do so. My eyes appreciate and my fingers quickly mimic their jeitinho brasilieiro for reusing items. My mother-in-law laughs as she realizes that my first project on her sewing machine was to repurpose her old, torn tablecloth into oven mitts. Not what they expected from this fancy American.

How can I find the words to describe Yankee in Portuguese? I try to explain how my mother and all the people I know hoard odds n’ ends–you know–just in case they need it one day. “I come from a long line of poor people who saved things too,” I explain in my broken Portuguese and they look at me with doubting eyes.

The luxury of ignoring your waste

There is a luxury in being able to send your trash elsewhere. How many of us really know what happens to our trash when we put it in a trash bag? It becomes someone else’s problem. And, well, there’s the privilege–the ability to pay someone else to take it away or the wherewithal to transport it yourself. If you’re poor, if you’re without a car, well those non-compostables go in the back yard far enough back that they are no longer an eyesore.

As we fill our planet earth, the divide between those who create the trash and those who deal with it becomes ever more complex.

Brazil employs professional trash pickers. They seek primarily plastics and metals and paper, but in some areas also used computer parts and tetra pak. Complete with a union and their own documentary movie, they take offense at the name trash pickers and instead call themselves catadores de reciclagem (recyclable seekers). The linguistic distinction is important, on both a personal and professional levels. They are not people mired in others waste, they are an integral part of Brazilian society that searches for reuseable goods and ensures that Brazil’s biggest cities do not drown in pollution and refuse. Each major city owes them a major debt, particularly Sao Paolo who employed them in their campaign to reverse the pollution that was drowning their city in the 1980s), and those cities who do not have them long for their services.

A used paper purchaser in Belo Horizonte, MG. Catadores wheel their carts to locations like this to sell their recyclables.

My prayer to Mother Earth

So today and every day I offer up a prayer to and for our pachamama (Mother Earth):

May our trash disposal be difficult enough that we are mindful of what we discard,
may we be creative enough to reuse all that we can,
and may we be all be blessed with catadores to mine the valuable from our waste.

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  1. Well said [written :)] Mal!


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  2. […] post (“Trash”) was originally written on May 30, […]

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