Trash Talk – Fresh Garbage (with video)

According to, there was a protest by 150 sanitation engineers (garbage men) protesting the 7% wage increase they will receive. They are asking 12%. Inflation/devaluation in Costa Rica runs about 15%. But it’s not my place to take sides in labor negotiations, so instead, let’s talk about garbage.

I live on the fifth floor of an apartment building. Down at ground level we have a 4ft by 4 ft by 12 ft place to take our garbage. The security guards take that garbage, in plastic bags, and put it out on the street every night somewhere between 6 and 7 every night. Later on in the night, maybe at 8, it varies, the garbage trucks come round. There is one driver and several ‘collectors’ who run around frantically collecting the plastic bags to throw inside the moving truck.

(I’m not sure what to make of the video, but it does show a Central American garbage dump)

Unfortunately for them, the bags are seldom intact, as scavengers (human) go through the bags between the time they are set out and the time the truck comes around. The collectors do the best they can to get as much garbage out of the streets, but there is always a big mess left behind. The drivers like to keep moving at a healthy clip, and the collectors literally run to keep pace. They are mostly young men, and in good physical shape. They have to be.

Once in a while, I will be out around 5 am when the second crew is active. These are guys (and gals) with brooms and wheelbarrows who clean up what the truck crews don’t get. As far as what I was doing out at 5 am, don’t ask and I won’t tell.

Like every country in the world, Costa Rica has a trash/garbage problem. 4 million people produce a lot of refuse. There are books about the subject and I won’t attempt to tackle it here. But I will say that the situation in Costa Rica is a far cry from the situation where I come from, in Northern California. When I was a boy, when you had to be careful of saber toothed tigers, the city dump was up at the edge of town. I think it was Wednesday, but there was one day a week where they burned the garbage. The smell was… unforgettable. The city eventually converted the burn bit to a landfill, covered the trash with dirt.

Back in those days, we had aluminum garbage cans. I had friends who worked for a while as collectors, and hard as they had to work, it was easier than what the Costa Rican collectors have to do. First of all, everything was in cans. The cans were heavy but the garbage didn’t spill out all the time.

Eventually the switch was made to very large plastic containers, with wheels, that were designed to work with an automatic loading mechanism on the trucks, reducing the number of collectors to one, and usually he didn’t have to move the cans into place even.

Down here in Costa Rica, where there is any collection at all, it’s not quite reached the aluminum can stage. Plastic bags are the way things are done. Few survive the scavengers. Some of the scavengers are scrupulous enough not to strew the trash all over the streets, and I thank them for that.

For all of it’s self-promotion as an eco-haven, Costa Ricans are amazingly unconcerned about where they throw their trash. The eco-tourist won’t see the reality down here as he or she zooms from one nature preserve to another, but wherever Ticos live, expect to find the sidewalks, the streets and the rivers full of garbage. Some of the things I have seen are beyond disgraceful. Even the public parks, such as Parque Sabana, are strewn with litter. Ticos casually throw their trash on the ground even when a trash container is within a step or two. Costa Rica has a lot of natural beauty and land set aside for nature preserves. The government realizes that this is a cash cow, and they won’t destroy the nature that feeds them. But don’t expect the locals to give a rat’s tail about ecology in reality. Sad but true. If you don’t believe me, I can take you on a garbage tour your next trip. Bring nose plugs.

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  1. Well I say fine all the Ticos with a $100 fine for each offense, HAVE THEM PAY ON THE SPOT! If they cannot, send them off to jail and MAKE THEM WORK HARD! I seldom see Ticas litter BTW, also send AL BORE (I meant Al Gore) sorry as he has the money to help out. People need to recycle more EVERYWHERE. In canada, I seldom saw trash ANYWHERE. In Baltimore it is EVERYWHERE, they simply have NO PRIDE. GO SAINTS BEAT COLTS!

  2. Jim & Carol says:

    Up here in Heredia, the trash truck comes by on Tuesdays and Fridays, that is unless there has been a holiday of some sort to mess up the schedule, then it could be any day — or no day at all. The tricky part is guessing what part of the day to expect them. Sometimes they show up as early as 6:30 am, necessitating having the trash out on the street the night before, especially for those who like to sleep in. Other times, they show up as late as 4:00 pm, which means that the trash gets to "age" in the sun all day long, resulting in some interesting aromas on one's daily walk around the neighborhood. Shortly after my arrival in CR, I asked a neighbor why there were no garbage cans. "They all get stolen," was the reply. And, unfortunately, along with the dry season comes the windy season, which means that we're all subjected to Hipermas plastic bags, swinging from branches 30 feet up in the trees, a truly lovely sight indeed. The solution? A national awareness that throwing a candy wrapper on the street is no different than throwing it on your own living room floor. Being the belligerent bastard that I am, I generally cause a scene whenever I see blatant littering. I yell at people, call them names, create a confrontation if I can. They, however, play little attention to me, just another crazy, old gringo who doesn't understand that Pura Vida means "garbage in the streets is the way we want it and if you don't like it go somewhere else." Sad.

  3. After a Costa Rican vacation we were asked would you go back. The answer was no because of all the garbage on the beaches. Hawaii has NO garbage on the beaches. We loved the Costa Rican people but I wish they showed more pride in the spectacular beauty their country possesses.

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