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Wednesday, September 23, 2020

Valencia in need of better waste management

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As a German, recycling has been part of my life since I started attending the Free University of Berlin almost last 35 years ago, maybe without the exception of the first year I spent in Taipei City, at the end of the 1980s as a young language student. Nowadays, Taiwan’s capital, with its current recycling quote of almost 70%, is a shining example for other countries around the world. Luckily, “Garbage Island” seems like ancient history!

When at the beginning of 2018 I temporarily moved back to Valencia, where I had lived from 1968 to 1985, it took me many months to get accustomed to the fact that in Spain’s third largest city there was still no recycling of organic waste at all! In Taipei they actually recycle two types, which are used either as fertilizer or as pig feed.

Although Spain’s municipal and packaging garbage recycling rates keep improving, there also seem to be significant regional differences. I got the impression that Valencia is far behind. It’s not that there are no containers, but their distribution is often incomprehensible: the ones for recycling tend to be separated from those for household garbage and that isn’t to avoid eliminating parking spaces, as the city has gone bicycle-crazy. Knowing how slothful a lot of people are in this country, that separation is definitely not a good idea. I can admire the results every time I throw out my household waste (which due to my high personal recycling rate is just about once a week): the container is usually full to the brim with unfolded cardboard boxes. The staff from the three bars downstairs isn’t willing to walk to the paper container, which is less than half a minute away in the opposite direction.

I also keep meeting people who are against recycling. No, they aren’t not just too lazy-they actively oppose it! 20 years into the 21st century, I find that hard to believe! Probably some would argue that one shouldn’t expect too much from those that are less educated. Well, even a good academic background doesn’t necessarily mean that the inhabitants of this city understand the necessity to separate trash carefully. Considering that at the time we all attended one of the best schools in Spain, I kept wondering how over the years even most of my classmates that stayed in Valencia dismissed the idea as odd. Last year one of them organized a barbecue for my birthday. It was nice and kind of him, but I remember how disappointed I was about the bad excuse he gave for not recycling. This has happened to me more than once and the justifications never sounded very convincing. Luckily, over time most of my friends changed their habits, and have become fervent recyclers.

On the other side, just recently I observed somebody who threw all the three bags he was carrying into the residual garbage container without thinking twice, after his family had diligently separated paper and packages from the rest. From what I have seen over the past months in front of a traditional market in my neighborhood, the first trials with organic waste have really been a real disaster. An American friend, who bought a flat nearby in an otherwise booming area, got the impression that many misbehave on purpose, as almost every type of trash ends up in the wrong place. Why would that location be an exception?

But the saddest thing was to see properly dressed older persons digging into that container, looking for usable fruits and vegetables. Unfortunately, considering the high taxes in Spain as well as relatively low incomes and pensions in this part of the country, where some people barely make ends meet, it didn’t really surprise me. Though that’s a totally different story, just like the Romanian gypsies that riffle through the containers with a hook in search of something they can sell.

Therefore, there’s room for improvement, not only in Spain. Educational campaigns like in Taiwan do slowly work, as most Taiwanese would nowadays be embarrassed to admit that they don’t recycle. There is a certain kind of social pressure to do so and for me that’s not a bad thing at all. Especially East Asians have learned a lot from the West during the last 150 years, by first copying things and habits in order to improve them step by step. Given that this problem has no political implications that could anger mighty China, all European nations should take a closer look at Taiwan’s impressive waste management.

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