Monday, August 2, 2010

Bag Lady

I apologize for the long hiatus. Part of the break was due to a month-long visit to Canada, and part of it is due to me finally starting to work here in Buenos Aires (at a very cool art gallery called Ups! Art Gallery. More on that in a future blog because it is a great space filled with lots of interesting art coming from some even more interesting Argentine artists). But since arriving back in the city two weeks ago, my brain has been chock-full of new impressions.

Part of the initial shock of arriving back to Buenos Aires was related to the fact that I was returning to a record breaking cold winter from spending time in the oh-so-gorgeous Canadian prairie summer. But even more shocking was going from the scene you see above (a typical scene from rural Manitoba taken by my lovely friend Tamara) to the complete chaos that is Buenos Aires.

Now aside from the obvious rural/urban difference, one thing that has really been brought to the forefront for me is the lack of concern for the environment.

I will admit it off the top. I am a prairie girl through and through. My city, Winnipeg (I call it my city, but I really grew up outside Winnipeg in the country), may have its drawbacks which include but are not limited to arctic temperatures, howling winds and fierce mosquitoes, but I still love it. What can I say? One of the things I love most about Winnipeg is its community of people committed to living in an environmentally conscious way. This is exceptionally evident at the Winnipeg Folk Festival, which I was delighted to attend.

Now, you may have read previous posts about the size of the steaks here in Buenos Aires, and the infamous asados, so you can probably appreciate how delightful it was for me to be at a place where they serve tofu burgers and tempeh bowls. But even more notable was the use of reusable plates at all the food stands and everyone walking around with their own reusable mugs. It really is amazing how much waste you can eliminate when people do their part. That festival had over 62,000 people attending and from what I could see, a shockingly small amount of garbage.

Now, I know that having lived in a co-op in Winnipeg and having friends who cut their grass with non-motorized lawn mowers may mean that I see more of an effort to tread softly on the earth than that being made by the average Winnipeger, but it still is shocking to come back to a place where it is not uncommon to see people simply toss their garbage out of the windows of buses that are belching out black exhaust fumes.

At a recent expat party here in Buenos Aires, I got to talking with some fellow expats about the differences in environmental awareness in some of our countries compared with Argentina. It most certainly has to do with education, but I still can't help but marvel at some of the things that are common here. I won't even get started on the amount of dog excrement on the sidewalk, which is an entire post on its own, and a typical conversation topic among expats.

The other, even more shocking and continually disturbing thing is that there is no recycling pick-up here in Buenos Aires. Imagine a city of more than 10 million people who drink more soda pop than any other city I have visited with no recycling pick-up. It is overwhelming. There is something in operation that acts as a kind of recycling, but it is more money driven than environmentally driven. This would be the group of people known as cartoneros, who pick through the bags of trash every night to collect materials such as cardboard and bottles that can be sold and recycled. The plight of the cartoneros is another post entirely because it is a social issue fraught with much controversy in this city. It is not easy to sit by and watch people, some of whom are young kids, pick through the garbage and pile it up on hand-pushed carts to earn what is often no more than the the equivalent of pennies.

But another thing that continues to amaze me is the insane amount of plastic bags being used and thrown away here. Just the other day I was shopping at Coto, one of the major supermarket chains in Argentina, and I watched as one of the cashiers was bagging. One pineapple, one bag; one plastic bottle of coke, double bagged; one package of individually wrapped snacks, one bag. You get the picture.

When I got to the checkout, I did my usually thing: pulled out my reusable bags and said in Spanish, "No bags please." The cashier did the usual thing and ignored me, licked her finger and started peeling off plastic bags. I politely repeated my request for no bags and the cashier looked at me like I had horns growing out of my head, shrugged and proceeded to toss my grocery items down the ramp at me, pausing only to put the milk in a plastic bag before I could stop her. "No bags please," I repeated in Spanish for the third time. "Not even for the milk?" the cashier asked? "No, not even for the milk," I replied. She shrugged as I took the milk out of the plastic bag and put it into my reusable bag. She threw that plastic bag away. Sigh.

So where to go from here? I could keep bagging (sorry, I couldn't resist!) about the lack of environmental awareness, which is probably the easiest thing to do. Or I can take the more difficult route, and just keep doing my part, little by little, and try not to get discouraged about it all. And while the landfill sites continue to fill up, I will continue to seek out new environmental options and projects like this one, which do exist but you just have to look a whole lot harder, and continue to fight the good fight where the whole plastic bag thing is concerned. I do dream of a greener, cleaner Buenos Aires, and I know many others do too.


  1. Great post Carla.

    That picture is stunning. I long for that view sometimes.

  2. Sorry to have missed ya in Canada! Great blogpost Carla!

  3. I hear you on the recycling issue! I have such a hard time throwing plastic bottles in the garbage after years of being trained to separate them in the States. It really is hard to do! I separated them initially, but everyone tells me it makes no difference...

  4. This is a great post Clara you are among those people which are like blessing for other i hope that you will struggle more to give people awareness about the harmful changes that are occurring in our atmosphere due to our negligence

    David Patterson

  5. Miss Carla! What a treat to read this blog entry and for your kind shout out to me. You know I'll keep sending you prairie photos as you appreciate them. But more than this, I LOVE that you wrote about your refusal to use plastic bags, and the snippy cashier. What a great snapshot into your life and the Argentinian life!