Let’s Get Real about Garbage in Nicaragua

“To know our refuse is to know ourselves. We mark our own trail from past to present with what we’ve used and consumed, fondled, rejected, outgrown.”
― Jane Avrich


Basura…garbage…it is one of the first things most tourists see and comment on when visiting Nicaragua. A Google search “garbage in Nicaragua” led to more than one million hits!  We still have a long way to go, but I have seen many positive changes in Nicaragua in the area of waste management.

Let’s Get Real about Garbage in Nicaragua

1. Recycling

Beside our baseball field, I noticed a huge collection of plastic waste ready to be recycled. Last week, when we crossed the lake, the ferry transported these bags to the mainland to be recycled. This was cause for celebration because our Ometepe Island refuse goes into an open-air landfill, where it is eventually burnt.  Until recently, plastic bottles and other things came to the island and never left.  According to figures from local environmental groups on Ometepe Island, Ometepe is visited by an average of 50,000 tourists per year, and at least 10 million tons of plastic enter the island annually. With that amount of plastic coming to la isla, I fear that we may sink unless we get a grip on our garbage.

The Association of Women Recyclers of Altagracia are hard at work collecting and recycling materials. Check out their story here.  My only objection to this article is this sentence, “Then they began to go out on bicycles to pick up garbage along the roads tossed out by tourists, selling the materials to a middleman.” Tossed out by tourists?? I don’t think so.

Most tourists visiting Nicaragua are appalled by the garbage along the roadways. When riding the chicken buses, it is an everyday occurrence to see locals toss their garbage out the windows of the buses. When the neighborhood children visit and I give them a packet of cookies or candy, they toss the wrappers on my front lawn, then I have to explain to them that I have a garbage can in my house. All the more reason for education in the schools about how to deal with our garbage on Ometepe Island.

IMG_6010If you are wondering what Nicaragua is doing to recycle, check out this website: Recycling in Nicaragua.

In honor of Earth Day 2015, Rosario Murillo ( Daniel Ortega’s wife) said,

“The Nicaraguan government, with the support of the Italian organization Africa 70, inaugurated a US $700,000 recycling plant in Chinandega. The new plant has an annual processing capacity of up to 2,300 tons of waste, has created more than 1,000 new jobs, and is reducing environmental pollution. We are celebrating Earth Day with more clean energy, increasing recycling and reforestation. We are taking specific steps to protect Mother Earth.”

Now, that is cause for celebration!

2. Composting

DSCN0962When people have coconut husks or hunks of broken blocks, or even old toilets, they are used as fill for the roads that wash out during heavy rains that leave gigantic crevices behind. Pretty clever and I guess you could say it is a form of composting.

IMG_0072But, the most creative form of composting I have seen in Nicaragua is at Selva Negra Eco Lodge where they reuse the coffee wastewater to generate methane gas, make compost from the coffee pulp, and fuel the kitchen by coffee husk. This is the sustainable impact of what they do and it is fabulous.
3. Landfills

One of the biggest success stories in waste management is the La Chureca Project funded by Spain. La Chureca was the largest open-air garbage dump in Nicaragua where 250 families lived and worked in unsanitary conditions sorting and selling garbage.

courtesy of Latino Daily News

courtesy of Latino Daily News

Now, Churequeros (garbage collectors) work in a modern waste treatment plant, Spain built homes and a school for the families, and the landfill is no longer exposed to the air.
This is what it looks like today. La Cureca Waste Recycling facility.

Change is possible! My favorite photo La Chureca before and after.

4. Disposing of waste materials or Where are the garbage cans?

IMG_1099We used to have garbage barrels on Ometepe Island. There was a barrel for glass, organic material, paper, and metal.  For about a month, all went smoothly. The barrels were filled with the appropriate garbage and emptied regularly. But, after a month, the barrels were overflowing with no order to the garbage. Finally, someone stole the barrels. The photo above shows what it looks like today. The photo below is San Juan Del Sur on Easter weekend 2014.

garbage on Easter
The Vice Mayor in San Juan Del Sur explained the lack of garbage cans in the city like this:
When the city HAD trash cans:
1. People were stealing the trash cans, even if they were chained. (Yep! Same thing on Ometepe Island)
2. People who do not want to pay for trash service were coming from out-of-town to put their garbage in private trash cans of those living in the city, which multiplied the amount of garbage in the cans.
3. The people who lived in the city, with the comfort of having a garbage can right outside their houses or businesses, were putting garbage in the trash cans at all times, not listening to the advice from the Mayor’s Office that they must coordinate putting out their garbage with the 4 daily pickups that the city does. This left many garbage cans full to overflowing, with the trash cans filled at night as well, causing a health problem.
4. The health problem was magnified by people who would search through the cans for empty cans and bottles, not caring whether they knocked some garbage out on the ground. In addition, dogs and cats constantly knocked the trash cans over, leaving piles of garbage in the streets and creating a very ugly situation and a big health hazard.

This response was from Matagalpa:
GARBAGE COLLECTION. While the article above is from San Juan del Sur, the answers given by a city official are parallel to Matagalpa. While living in Matagalpa, you watched for the garbage truck [which rang a loud school bell to announce that they were coming] … you then brought out your plastic sacks of garbage as the truck neared the entrance to your home. Why? Dogs! If you didn’t want your garbage sack to be torn into shreds, thus having to clean up the horrible mess left behind by the dogs, you patiently waited for the garbage truck. I DID ask my landlady why there couldn’t be one of those trash posts [barrel soldered to the post) placed on the side of the street. Her answer was simple: (1) it takes very special permission to have one placed near or on your property – more trouble & $ than it is worth, and (2) people will steal the barrel.

How can we resolve the issues of our waste management problems when people continue to steal the barrels?

May 2015 “The mayor’s office of Managua reported that 6,000 tons of garbage had been removed from the city’s vast system of open storm sewers in preparation for the beginning of the rains but in many cases the public had thrown more garbage into them since they were cleaned.” Nicaragua Network

So, although there are many wonderful programs for waste management in Nicaragua, we still have a long way to go. The Vice Mayor of San Juan Del Sur suggests that foreigners understand that “Nicaragua is not like our home countries. Because of cultural differences, the solutions may seem strange to us. And because of these same cultural differences, problems will likely be treated differently than we would treat them.”

Personally, I’ve learned a lot about the culture of Nicaragua from the garbage that is strewn everywhere.

What is it with shoes in Nicaragua?

How many shoes do you see?

How many shoes do you see?

We mark our own trails from past to present with what we have used and consumed, fondled, rejected, and outgrown. I hope that the trails we leave behind are only footprints.

Happy litter-free trails to you!


16 thoughts on “Let’s Get Real about Garbage in Nicaragua

  1. Two main problems with Latin America generally: corruption and ignorance. The first is quasi-irremediable. Monies that could be destined for public works are always dipped into by corrupt officials. There is less money available than there could be in principle. The second is remediable but the will is lacking, and to some extent so are the funds and the creativity. Hygiene-civics could be a simple monthly class in public schools, with an emphasis on cultivating a sense of civic responsibility and shame in the face of filth and wastefulness and such things as stealing of trash bins. Radio and tv stations could and should cooperate with frequent programs and messages. Pride and self-respect is always a good way to reach the Latin psyche. One just has to raise the general level of awareness.

  2. Great question, “What is it with shoes in Nicaragua?” as I remember seeing many lonely shoes discarded during our travels through your adopted country. We too were appalled by the trash but still so very impressed with what a beautiful country Nicaragua is. It’s good to know that there are many ongoing efforts aimed at cleaning up the country as well as education about recycling being provided for a future pristine Nicaragua. Anita

  3. I was shocked to see to which extent Nicaragua uses plastic! for several weeks i have been searching for a bucket made of natural materials (sisal, raphia or so) like those you find and use in African countries. Nothing! only plastic, plastic, plastic! Neither decoration or household items – for example nice salad forks and spoons made of coconut shell or cattle corn – absolutely zero, only plastic again!

    But if plastic is so extensively used, it is because people have seen it somewhere – and many of them have been in the US where everything is wrapped in plastic – think only of all those fast-food restaurants (but probably the US do have recycling systems). The other bad influence comes from China – Chinese products are overflooding the market with tons of cheap – and quickly unusable – plastic toys, instruments and gadgets!

    Why is it necessary that a Cafe – as to be seen in Granada – does not use one single “real” cup, but exclusively plastic cups, plates and spoons? Even for those guests who take a seat in the Cafe?

    The best waste management is to AVOID GARBAGE as much as possible. Alternatives for plastic bottles do exist (for example those 5 gallon containers), and I prefer eating from porcelain, glass or ceramics than from plastic plates. A lot of environmental education is required to put this into the heads of the young ones – because the elder generation is very difficult to educate.

    Those suppliers who do not offer an ecological alternative to consume their products (cafes, restaurants…) should either be boycotted by the public or be forced by the administration to pay an environmental fee used to cover the waste management or recycling costs. This would very quickly solve the problem.

    Alternative solutions DO exist: forks and knives made of bamboo or a cheap light wood, cakes and bread could be wrapped in paper instead of supplying them in a plastic or cellophane bag.

    We are really destroying our planet and a change of our habits is absolutely necessary!

    • So, do you have garbage cans in San Clemente? If so, do people steal them? There has to be a solution, but I’m not sure what. I’m thinking we need those giant closed metal containers, but then the garbage trucks would never be able to get the garbage out of them because they don’t have lifts.

  4. Pingback: Dugout Canoe, Ometepe Island, Nicaragua - PIRAN CAFÉ

  5. It’s great to read about the positive developments in Nicaragua related to waste management and recycling! Thanks, Debbie. I had to share that my visit to Ometepe in 2009 totally changed the way I think about waste in my own life. The island was like a paradise to me when I arrived, but every evening I noticed a horrible acrid smell in the air. On the third day I found out what was going on–people were burning garbage, including heaps of plastic water bottles, because there was other way to deal with it. There was no (expensive) infrastructure for recycling or waste removal. I immediately started refilling a water bottle instead of buying three or four new bottles a day (in Balgue the spring water was wonderful and safe). That week in Nicaragua made me realize that even in places where there are systems to “hide away” garbage, as in the U.S., we are still producing mountains of waste. I made a commitment to use a refillable water bottle all of the time and to never buy bottled water unless there was absolutely no alternative. I’m proud to say that in the 7 years since that trip I have rarely bought a plastic bottle of water–and in the years before the trip I probably consumed more than a hundred plastic bottles of water annually. I’m glad to hear that although there are challenges there is positive change afoot on Ometepe!

    • Way to go, John! Oh the burning plastic! That is one thing I didn’t mention in my post. We have two “chicken ladies” in Moyogalpa that barbecue chicken on the streets on the weekends. One of the chicken ladies starts her fire using plastic bags. When we discovered that, we won’t buy the chicken dinners from her anymore. My neighbors burn plastic, too and the smell is horrid. Like I said, we have a lot to do, yet…but there are major improvements. Thanks for sharing your experience, John.

  6. A way to go for sure, but …theres hope .
    I saw lots of garbage in Costa Rica too, not in every area I visited , but enough.
    I’m on my way to Matagalpa and will be meeting with people whom have lived there for a long time , can’t wait to see and hear about the garbage there too!!

  7. In Merida, there is a school with plastic bottles of uniform size, stuffed with plastic bags, incorporated into the cement walls of the school. This sequesters the plastic, provides insulation, makes the walls much less dangerous if they should collapse in an earthquake, and spares the cost of the concrete which would otherwise occupy the space.

    Contact Alvaro Molina for more information.

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