Today I sat behind two elementary school age boys enjoying popsicles on the bus. First, I noted their cute labcoat attire, and then I watched them both unceremoniously dump stick and wrapper out the window, onto the street and out of mind. No one else on the bus seemed to give it any thought.


While I do my best to recycle, especially after section parties left my dorm devastated with crushed cans every Friday morning or so last year, I am no environmentalist. But the ease with which the two boys, at such an innocent age, instinctively threw their trash onto their street took me aback, and made me recall a conversation I’d had with an ex-Peace Corps worker in Guatemala this summer.


Guatemala is a beautiful country, but a quick look at almost any mountain pass will tell you that numerous Chapínes treat it otherwise: rivers of trash frequently sprawl down ravines. Streets in pueblos and larger cities are also often full of litter.


During a conversation on the matter, the abovementioned Peace Corps vet explained his two-fold theory: first, for hundreds of years before the era of packaged food, Mayans and their descendents ate natural, organic fare that could be thrown over a shoulder without a thought. Today, the same is done with plastic Doritos bags and other extraneous indecomposable packaging, but with many more drastic aesthetic and environmental consequences. While this part of the theory may be no more than an interesting thought, the more concrete part of it is that for whatever reason, many Guatemalans are oblivious to the trash on the streets, or at least conditioned to believe it to be the norm. One problem is lack of proper infrastructure: there are almost no public trashcans to be found; even in larger cities, one must ask a store-owner to use a “basurero” hidden behind the counter.


I haven’t seen enough of Ecuador to determine whether the children’s’ actions portray a larger norm here as well, but I’m inclined to believe it. I’d love to know how much environmental-awareness advertising and effort it took for this American to be conscious of his trash, whether such campaigns were privately or publicly sponsored, and how difficult it would be to stage similar drives down here.