A Fulbright Teacher in Bogota, Colombia, A Special Series – Trash Collection – by Laura Blasena. The North Star Reports: Global Citizenship and Digital Literacy, at NorthStarReports.org and facebook.com/NorthStarReports
When our cleaning lady decided to take a week off after Christmas, I and the fourteen other people living it the house from which I currently rent a room ran into a problem: the trash was piling up. For some of my house mates, that doesn’t seem to matter. For me, however, this was a problem. I wanted to take the trash out, but the problem was that I didn’t know how.
(Note the lovely collection of garbage and recyclables in the garbage can. Separating recyclables and garbage was not a thing in any of the buildings where I lived or in any of the schools where I worked or volunteered.)
In Bogota, there are no universal trash or recycling binds that are distributed throughout the city. In fact, there is almost no such thing as recycling bins. Recycling is a very new concept and it tends not to turn out so well when only a small fraction of the city is aware of what recycling is. I’ve seen students quietly deliberating as they stare at the recycling bins at my university before quickly dumping all of the leftover food into the recycling bin, leaving the paper plate and plastic cup in the trash.
(In Leticia (the Amazon region of Colombia), trash collection seemed to be a bit more universal in the small city. There were also many more campaigns advertising recycling and the proper disposal of trash.)
Instead of a universal system for trash removal, the system seems to be as follows: trash bags are left outside of houses, on the side of the road, on street corners–so long as they are all placed in a somewhat central pile, it seems–and are then collected by trucks or individual sanitation workers who lug around a small cart to collect trash.
(In Salento, all of the trash in the city is collected and deposited nearby the public baseball field.)
This works to a fault. There are a few elements of Bogota that make this process more complicated.
There are many homeless people on the streets of Bogota. For many of these homeless people, the one readily available source of food can be found in the flimsy plastic bags of trash that are left out on street corners throughout the week. While the plastic trash bags may be set out in a neat pile, within a matter of hours they will be shredded to piece, sorted through, and discarded.
(Note the single lone trash bag sitting out at the edge of the park outside of the house where I live.)
Those that choose to sort through the plastic bags are in search of two things: leftover food and recyclables. The food is very obvious. Entire plates of food, half eaten fruits, and only slightly rotting produce is discarded every day, and the homeless are able to take advantage of it. The recyclables are collected for money. Near garbage collection days, the streets will be full of people lugging carts packed high with cardboard, wood, plastic, and papers.
About our special correspondent and senior editor Laura Blasena: Ever since I was a little Kindergartner I’ve always wanted to be a teacher.
I graduated from St. Scholastica in the summer of 2015 with a double major in Elementary Education and Spanish Education after student teaching as a 5th grade teacher and also as a Spanish teacher at NorthStar in Duluth, Minnesota.
While my future plans before graduation were initially to become a classroom teacher, I decided to wait a year to begin teaching in the United States and have chosen to work as a Fulbright English Teaching Assistant in Bogota, Colombia. In Colombia, I will be working with a university as an assistant in the language department, attending classes, running conversation clubs, and offering the perspective of a native speaker.
I’ve always loved to travel. In college, I participated in several study abroad trips, visiting England, Guatemala, and Mexico. (I loved visiting Mexico so much that I even went back a second time!). I’m looking forward to the travel opportunities that I will have while working and living in Colombia.
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38 responses to “A Fulbright Teacher in Bogota, Colombia, A Special Series – Trash Collection – by Laura Blasena. The North Star Reports: Global Citizenship and Digital Literacy, at NorthStarReports.org and facebook.com/NorthStarReports”
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Thanks Laura for sharing. I found it very interesting how recycling is a newer concept in Bogota. Here in the US I think we do a decent job of recycling, but there is some room for improvement. I also thought it was interesting, but also saddening that there are so many homeless and that they sort through the garbage. Homelessness is prevalent everywhere and it seems to be a growing population. It seems that Bogota’s trash collecting system is working to an extent, I wonder if they could find a better system? Thanks again for sharing!
Did you ever figure out how the process works for taking out the trash? When I went to Honduras for a Habitat for Humanity trip, I also notices the trash along the side of roads and even more as we headed up to the mountains. After reading your article, a question that came up in my mind was when did the US started recycling? Now there are bins for compost, trash and recycling. Even I have trouble with discarding things in the correct bin and sometimes the pictures makes me even more confused from time to time. Is there going to be a new category bin for discarding things in the future?
Trash collection seems to be hidden from the public eye in America. When you bring your trash to the dumpster, it becomes an out-of-sight out-of-mind type of situation. It’s interesting to hear about how residents in Columbia set trash outside their homes, while here in the US we nearly hide our trash from others. It is also shocking to hear about other countries who are just beginning to recycle and are not very comfortable with doing so. Thanks for sharing!
That’s very interesting. I wonder how this affects the environment. It seems like a really fascinating way to help those who have no options for food, whether or not that is the intended goal. I sincerely cannot imagine not being able to take out my trash or not knowing what to do with it; it’s such a priority chore any place I have lived. Thanks for you article!
So although recycling is a fairly new concept to most Colombians, there are monetary rewards for collecting it? I’m curious as to how long it’ll take people to realize this and take advantage of the opportunity. Overall, from what you’ve seen, how is the pollution in Colombia? It would be intriguing to compare which countries have realized the problem of global warming and are “developed” to those who have not and are viewed as less developed. The issue of the homeless tearing open trash bags for food is a complex one, as we all need to eat.
This is my favorite article in this series so far. Sanitation is something I rarely think about when I study other nations but it is very important to the different communities and cities around the world. Good sanitation programs come from places that have sophisticated infrastructure, a direct correlation that can not be present in places that are war torn or under bad governance. I could not imagine living in place where your garbage piles up with no order to it whatsoever. Thank you for this new perspective.
Thank you for sharing Laura! It is surprising how interesting the topic of trash collecting actually is. I am going to be honest when I say I only think about trash until I have placed it into a dumpster and then I never think about where it ends up. How strange it must have felt to not know how to take care of the garbage piling up in your home. I have never thought about what I am going to do with garbage, because there are garbage cans all over the place. It is unfortunate that garbage bags would be lined up outside of buildings but at the same time a blessing in disguise for the homeless. Kind of strange to sit back and think about it from both sides.
Thanks for writing, Laura! I am an environmental sustainability minor, so I am always ver conscious to where the trash that I’m handling gets put. It often breaks my heart walking around foreign places and seeing so much trash out on the streets and knowing that it won’t end up somewhere that it will be taken care of responsibly. Thanks for sharing!
Wow, very fascinating to see how recycling is not a well known concept in Bogota. It is almost alarming how garbage is managed over there as well. Your pictures truly put into perspective that the system may need some adjustments. It is very saddening to hear that the homeless people’s only means of eating come from searching in the garbage bags. Hopefully over time this gets resolved and garbage and recycling are handled in a more appropriate matter. Thank you for shining light on this in a tremendous article.
It is astonishing to many Americans in our generation that the concept of recycling is a very new idea and isn’t practiced throughout the world. I liked how you described the difficulty that students at your university had adjusting to the new form of dispensing garbage. It must’ve been hard to watch them struggle with something that seemed so easy to you because we were taught that it should be an easy, everyday practice. Great article, as always, thanks for sharing!
Thanks for sharing! Despite how unorthodox this might seem, I can’t help but think that this method isn’t all that bad. At least the trash is being used in a somewhat positive. Someone mentioned above that our trash is an out-of-mind-out-of-manner situation, we get rid of it and it disappears. Even though we know this is not the case, we still have no problem doing it despite how much stuff we are putting to waste.
I’m sure this way of discarding trash was very eye opening. It makes you feel grateful for how you have life back in the United States. I also had an eye opening event like this but unfortunately, in Haiti, there is no collection of trash bags in a pile. All of the trash is everywhere in the street and sometimes in ponds with pigs rolling around in it. Again, it makes you feel thankful for what you have.
While this seems somewhat gross, it sounds like it works for them. It is definitely different from what I’ve experienced here in America, where I have always had a garage can that gets emptied once a week. It seems beneficial for the homeless so they can find food, so I suppose there is a bright side. It is a bummer recycling isn’t well known, but it’s good to hear it’s starting to happen.
I am from Tegucigalpa, Honduras and when I first came to the US I was actually surprised to see how much people recycle here. Back home, it is not common to separate plastics, aluminum, cardboard and trash. It is not a practice that is embedded in our culture which is kind of a shame because recycling can be so beneficial for the environment. I think that the main reason recycling is not common back home is because we don’t have the companies or equipment to recycle these materials – they are expensive.
This article is heart breaking and eye opening. Heart breaking because it seems that there is little education there on how negatively their habits for disposal of trash harms the environment. It’s eye opening because I never really thought about our garbage removal system, it just seems second nature. I really liked this article and allowed me to get a glimpse into their everyday lives.
What an interesting way of showing how a society does something different from what we are used to. It’s easy to assume, wrongly in most cases, how if we do something one way everyone else must do it as well. One of the most interesting things I read in your article was how informal the whole trash system works, but it’s also important to note that it still works, or else they wouldn’t still be using it. Thanks for expanding my horizons for how different people do the same thing differently.
Reading this article I had trouble trying to understand that the concept of recycling as a new concept in Bogota. I grew up with the recycling process and have always recycled in my own home. I knew what could and couldn’t be recycled. Another thing that striked me as different is the homeless rummaging through trash. This has always been a difficult action to wrap my head around because I had never experienced it myself. I hope that Bogota is able to apply the concept of recycling in public places and get into the routine to create a cleaner environment for the people of the towns.
Not having a well-known waste and recycling program? I can’t wrap my mind around that! I know I’ve grown up with recycling anything we can and saving box tops too. To me, it’s natural, but trying to start it up must have been extremely difficult at first! New concepts that changes something we’ve been accustomed to for years makes changing a lot harder. I hope that people will learn recycling quickly because it’s pretty important for our world’s health.
This is really interesting as here in the US it is almost frowned upon to not recycle. It is a habit for many of us to sort our garbage into trash and recycling. I find this important to realize that not everywhere in the world do things the same. I am not going to say that their methods on waste removal is wrong but I hope they are working towards creating a cleaner living environment, as well as educating those on recycling, Thank you for sharing with us and broadening our perspectives on the world.
It is interesting to read how Colombia handles its own environment and how different its methods of informal to formal waste sorting are. I think it can be argued that your article suggests that that political conflicts and business interests of a few can also affect the urban planning of a city. It’s a shame that the costs are so high for companies to commit to develop the environmental future of Bogotá. It is really interesting how recycling is just starting to get attention in Bogotá and I’m sure your students will value your input with adjusting to a new way of dispensing garbage. Recycling is very important in my household and I hope many more countries around the world start to make it a priority.
When I was in London I noticed something similar but different. In London there are no trashcans because of their history of terrorism and trashcan bombs and as a result people just pile their garbage in cracks between buildings or on the sidewalk. Then there are sanitation workers who walk around and pick up the garbage. This was something I could not get used to because I felt so guilty, like I was littering, by leaving my garbage on the sidewalk. Bogota’s situation seems more extreme as there is nowhere to put large garbage bags. The system seems to be working a bit but I’m sure it can’t be completely sanitary for the ground and groundwater for garbage to sit around for a couple days.
It is interesting how the concept is fairly new to the people of Colombia. I find it very odd that they don’t have a sanitation service that provides a universal can for either recyclables or garbage. Yes we do pay for them in the US but most states it is illegal to not have a garbage can. I mean the trash system does seem to work in a way for the people of Colombia but I feel once they get more push behind the whole recycling movement they will be able to expand and update their whole sanitation system. Great article!
Very interesting Laura. I saw a very similar thing while in the Philippines. It seemed crazy to me that that was the system of trash removal. It seemed so confusing and unorganized to me that I couldn’t help but wonder how it got done. It definitely made me appreciate what we have here so much more. It is also extremely sad. I am glad the homeless at least have somewhere to look for food and a way to make money, but that is such a hard life. Something I could never imagine. Thank you for sharing again!
This article makes me think about the programs that are in my life that I do not even think twice about, such as a garbage and recycling system. Usually I can just put trash into a dumpster near me and know that it will be taken care of, the hardest part is taking garbage to the actual dump and that is not even difficult. It is eye-opening to hear about a place that does not have a system set in place, It makes me really appreciate this program here. It makes me think about other countries and what their trash systems are like.
I thought this article was very interesting. It was particularly interesting to notice the differences between Bogota and here in the US. The trash collection system in the US is for the most part very efficient. I wonder if there would be more education about proper garbage and recycling handling, would this affect the current garbage/recycling procedures? I thought it was interesting because I had never really thought about the garbage collection process and always took it for granted.
This was a very surprising article Laura. I was amazed that this is the way they are removing trash. It seemed to be very messy and unorganized. It’s weird comparing their methods to ours, they are so different. In a way it gives you a great appreciation for what we have here in the U.S. I have grown up with strict recycling rules from my parents, its hard to understand that they are not creating a clean nor safe environment. I hope in the near future this changes for the better. Thanks for sharing!
I think because “proper” garbage collection (including recycling measures) have been hammered into young Americans for awhile it can be surprising to compare the sanitation collection systems of other countries. I’m curious as to why a more formal collection system hasn’t been put in place in Colombia, though the recycling options might indicate a turn in that direction. Do you have a sense of why the country is behind in sanitation collection?
I suppose it is beneficial system for the homeless in Columbia. However, it does concern me as well that perhaps the piles of trash could negatively impact the environment and sanitation levels. As many others have stated in their comments, it is interesting that recycling is a new concept for some in Columbia. Did you find that the trash situation bothered any Columbians or do they seem to be content with the situation?
It’s nice being privileged enough to turn up our noses at eating perfectly good food out of the garbage. I do wish there were more sanitary collection procedures, since there are very good reasons we tend not to. I hope I never have to do away with those to feed myself. As for the recycling, that’s one part of our species I have a lot of hope for… when I think about development. Getting enough people to care is the kicker.
I always enjoy reading your articles Laura! What a difference in sanitation because I imagine that the organization, or lack there of, is frustrating. I am like you when it comes to garbage, I hate seeing it pilled up. But this article made me realize how lucky I am to be able to dispose of my garbage. It breaks my heart that the homeless have to dig through garbage’s in order to get their meal. It puts in perspective of how lucky we are to have what we have and to try and not take things for granted. Thanks for sharing.
Thanks for your interesting story!! I find it interesting that recycling is a new concept. Where I work at an elementary school, the kids are totally into recycling and there is a huge push to recycle. I was in Mexico last week, and it really made me sad to see all the homeless people and all the poverty there too. Thanks again for sharing your story!!
In my hometown there is a service for garbage removal but nothing in terms of recycling. My family would drive to a nearby town to drop recyclables off at a shed. Here we would need to sort out the glass, cans, and cardboard ourselves. I think knowing that larger cities here in the US have recycling pick up may make my decision of where to live a little easier. I think it would be difficult to live somewhere that doesn’t provide this service as I am so eco-conscious. Thank you for your article!
This was a very interesting piece to read. Especially so because most of us reading this exist in a culture where if trash wasn’t collected in a timely manner, there would be outrage and picketing from the public. Something we take for granted here is done so differently other places. I bet this was a struggle to get used to at first!
To me its an eye opener that a country as forward as Colombia doesn’t have recycling. We just take so many of these things as universal and we over look how rich our country is to implement recycling centers and clean garbage dumps. I just always thought recycling had been around forever, i think when you grow up with all these things like malls amusement parks, instagram stop spots you just grow up in your little USA bubble
I’m glad you were so honest and straightforward with this article. I myself find it frustrating and upsetting when items are not recycled properly, but the unfortunate thing is that many people don’t understand the specifics behind recycling and how easy it is if you know them. When I took a trip to Honduras recently, I was exposed to immense amounts of garbage in the streets and saw people sifting through it as you described. It was not only difficult for me to see people in search of their next meal, but it was also very tough to see people scavenging in search of trash/recyclables that they could turn into money. Understanding the trash epidemic is both difficult and challenging, but I do believe something should be done about it sooner rather than later.
It is admiring to see an article so different to those just admiring their surroundings. It is crazy how we take the recycling for granted. Just how easy we have it when we can just put different things into different bags. All the garbage we do not see or have to deal with. It clearly has different effects in different countries. Causing problems and these are the things we do not see. I think we should be made more aware of these processes or find out ways to help other countries. I have seen this issue in many a few different countries and it is definitely an eye opener.