What happens to plastic waste in Nicaragua? While some tourists go to the beautiful beaches and volcanoes, Aura, Sara Bo and I made a trip to the local dump. The visit was super interesting. In many ways the recycling that happens here is more efficient than back in Canada– yet just as fundamentally problematic.

Big flatbed trucks pick up the completely un-segregated trash from the surrounding communities and dump it here. Like in most Latin American countries the segregation is manual. Folks with poles pour over it to find the materials currently in demand. They do a remarkably thorough job. The dumpsite photos above are of the picked-through trash. It is a lot more thoroughly picked through than the waste pile at the end of the recycling line that I swept up at the factory back in Canada.

Senora Florentia and her family live beside the dump and sell the segregated materials. I was so happy to meet fellow basureras! They were eager to share stories with Aura and I about the way it all works. Of course, all the PET (#1) and HDPE (#2) are thoroughly recycled. Cardboard, tin cans, aluminum cans, and wood also. Because of the low cost of labour, clean soft plastics ( LDPE #4) and old shoe bottoms are even recycled– back in Canada we just dump those back into the environment.

Alas, it is tough and trying work. For PET #1, the most valuable of the plastics, the family gets paid at the most 2.2 cordovas per kilogram (about 8 cents per KG). One bottle is thus worth about 0.3 cents. In the Philippines, interestingly enough, it is about 25 cents per kilogram. Because wages are so low here and there is so much unemployment, it is just possible to scavenge a living segregating the bottles and waste. Florentia’s plastic bottles are picked up by a Chinese company. They are then shipped off to Japan and China.

This is a disconcerting pattern I am beginning to notice. In anecdotes and my personal experiences US, Canada, the Northern Philippines, and now Nicaragua I am observing that recycling is not a local affair. The community, the province or even the country doesn’t use the plastic that is extracted—it is shipped out massive distances. The flow of plastic criss-crosses the world in an insanely energy intensive global web of container ships, factories, refineries and oil extration as our drinking bottles bounce around the planet. And of course, thand the inevitible dumpsites, litter and ocean waste for all the plastic that can’t be recycled anymore or just can’t be recycled (here in Nicaragua: Styrofoam, dirty containers, plastic bags, tetra paks, chip wrapers, etc)

Aura thanked Senora Florentia for her hard work “What you are doing is so important to keeping these materials out of the environment.”