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Trash Collection In Panama

“Kathleen and Lief, we’re really interested in coming down to Panama and looking at Los Islotes when we’re done with our family caregiving obligations up here in Canada. One thing that has us concerned is the articles we’ve read regarding Panama’s trash problems.

“If you have any high-up, ‘mucky-muck’ contacts in the government there, maybe you could suggest that they consult with Wayne Huizenga in the States, in Ft. Lauderdale. He founded Waste Management Inc., starting with just one truck in the ’60s, and, as you know, it’s everywhere now.

“We did read a Jan. 5, 2012, article about Enrique Ho, the new director in Panama, getting more trucks on the streets, but WMI might have suggestions as to how to train the locals not to litter and to get into recycling. Just a suggestion!”

–Jan B., Canada

Yes, Panama has a trash problem…as does the entire developing world…and beyond. It’s a budget thing, but it’s also a cultural thing.

When we moved to Ireland years ago, we were shocked to discover the trash problem in that country. We’d walk down the street behind a couple of grown men who would drop their Coke cans and their cigarette wrappings on the sidewalk without breaking stride. We’d follow behind cars on the road whose occupants would throw Big Mac wrappers and empty potato chip bags out the windows. Litter was everywhere. It drove us crazy.

At the time, Ireland had money. The little green island was awash with cash. Why didn’t they use some of it to improve their garbage collection infrastructure? I never understood, but that’s a question for another day.

What Ireland did do while we were living there was to launch a campaign of education. And, more than the budget to cover the expense of collecting the garbage, this is what’s required to bring about a change in a country where the people don’t recognize trash and litter as a problem–education.

In the developing world (including Ireland, for example) people don’t think anything of throwing their trash on the ground, on the street, out their car windows, even out the back doors of their houses. It’s how it’s done…how it’s always been done…and how their children learn to do it. Meaning the next generation grows up with the same perspective.

This is why, again, the real key to effecting any change is education. As in Ireland years ago, today in Panama, they’re running public service ad campaigns to try to get people to think about trash on the streets as a problem. They’re talking about it with kids in schools. And they’re installing more trash bins in public places. Bins are all along the new Cinta Costera, for example, and in the park near our house that has recently been renovated.

Panama is trying to address the problem, both through education and through an investment in more and more modern trash trucks. Our garbage, for example, used to be collected by a bunch of guys driving an old, beat-up pick-up truck without any gate on the back. They’d throw our bags in…and bits and pieces of other peoples’ trash would fly out in response. They’d drop bags as they drove away. Again, it drove us crazy. I’d run outside wearing plastic gloves to try to pick up the garbage they were dropping and throw it back on the truck before they got away.

Now the truck that comes twice a week to collect the garbage from our neighborhood looks like one you might see in any U.S. city.

They’re working on it. But it will take a long time, at least a generation, for any real change to play out.

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