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.

When you are poor you waste very little. Here in Brazil 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. 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. I surprise my in-laws with my creativity in re-using items and my willingness to do so. Not what they expected from this fancy American. I struggle to find the words to describe Yankee in Portuguese. 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.

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, 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.

So today and every day I offer up a prayer to and for our pachamama: May 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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