The Throwaway Culture: USA vs Ecuador

“How was your trip to the States?” our friends in Ecuador ask, and it is sometimes hard to frame a simple answer. It is always great seeing family and friends. Manicured and landscaped lawns were a treat, and it was almost scary how easy it was to communicate when everyone is speaking English all the time. But there were other things, unsettling things, that we noticed as well.

Rita and I have lived in Ecuador for three years this January. Over the last year we have had family members come to visit us, so it had been ten months since our last trip back. We knew it would seem a little odd, but we weren’t quite prepared for the full impact.

First, after the mañana lifestyle of the Pacific coast in Salinas, it seemed like everyone was in a hurry wherever we went. When we visited restaurants, we knew the prices would be a shock, but we had forgotten what huge portions are served up, with most of the plate high in fat and carbs, and low in nutrition. We also had forgotten that American restaurants are concerned with getting you fed and on your way as quickly as possible. In Ecuador, you can finish your meal and sit and talk for hours without the waiter ever approaching you until you ask for the bill. In the US, they plop the bill down on the table with your entrée, and clearly expect you to vacate as soon as your meal is over.

What made the biggest impression on me on our last visit however was the profusion of goods available in the stores, and how easily things are just discarded. Not only trash, although there is plenty of that; fast food comes in all disposable containers, products in stores are double or triple wrapped in cardboard and plastic, and so much of the food in the grocery stores was in boxes, cans or bags.

But also evident was that people discard things that are still usable or valuable. Partly because of the large serving sizes, I routinely saw fries, veggies, soft drinks, and more thrown into the trash. At the fish counter in a Harris Teeter, I saw them fileting a fish, and disposing of everything except the filet. Driving down suburban streets I saw homes with chairs, couches, lamps, and other home items out for trash pickup.

This is NOT the case in Ecuador, where items are typically used, reused, broken down into constituent pieces and used again. You certainly would not toss out a fish carcass – you would use it to make soup, or a fish stock. If a leg of a chair breaks, you fix it. If you can’t fix it, you use the parts to make something else.

I was at an expat’s home once helping to translate for workers installing his Internet. They needed an extension cord, so he rummaged around and pulled one out of a drawer. Unfortunately, it seemed to have a short in it, and it would not work. He tossed it into the kitchen trashcan, and immediately one of the workers pointed to it and asked if he could have it. No doubt he took it home and replaced one of the ends, or shortened it until it worked.

Another good example of this throwaway mind set is something that happened when a friend of my wife came to visit us in Salinas this year. She and her significant other were renting a place for two months, so they decided to also bring her dog. Along with the dog, they brought a plethora of dog equipment, including a dog stroller.

If you are not familiar with the product, and good for you if you are not, this is a stroller made specifically for dogs. You can find them in most pet stores in the US. At any rate, while “walking” the dog on the Malecon in this stroller, they hit a bump and the front wheel came off, so the doggy had to walk back.

When we were told this story, I told them not to worry, I can call a guy who will fix that for you. The couple looked at each other, a bit at a loss, and then confided that they had just left the stroller leaning against a trashcan. They assumed we could just take them to the mall to buy a new one.

I was nonplussed. First, I had to explain to them that although you may find this item in the US easily, in Ecuador they don’t generally worry about putting their dogs into strollers. We might find one in Guayaquil, if we were to make the four-hour round trip, spend some time searching, and then pay 50% more for it than you would in the States. They tried to go back and get the broken one for repair, but of course it was long gone. I told them someone probably already has it repaired, and is pushing it around the street loaded with mangoes or papayas for sale. Or possibly welded it to the back of a bicycle for their child to ride in.

That is the mindset in Ecuador. I noticed early on you do not often see second-hand stores, and hardly any junkyards. Cars are used and repaired until they are falling apart, and then the parts are used for something else. We have seen a few vehicles so modified, you can’t tell what make and model they started out as. We call them genericars. The same thing is true for appliances, and really anything of value.

Perhaps the concept of “value” is the important difference. Ecuadorians see value in almost everything. Workers don’t buy a new bucket to mix paint or concrete, they cut an empty 5-liter water bottle in half and use that. We have had plumbing fixtures replaced, and the plumber always wants to know if he can keep the old leaky parts. Everything has value.

In the States, it seems that the mindset is if it is old, or you just can’t use it anymore, throw it away and get a new one. There doesn’t even have to be anything wrong with it. Is your car more than 3 years old? Get a new model. Let’s get rid of our TV and get a new one that is “smarter” and does 3D. A new iPhone 8 is coming out, toss your iPhone 7 and get the latest. Isn’t it possible this leads to a feeling that nothing is of value? Could it be this idea that everything is disposable be part of the problems the US is facing?

If your society is broken, do you just throw it away?

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  • Jim Whitman says:

    Jim; you have expressed some of what I have felt ever since arriving in Ecuador in 1988. I lived in Quito for 18 months and was shocked at how little was put out for garbage pickup. Then I learned that here, almost everything can be fixed; furniture, suitcases, electrical devices, and just about anything else. When I go to the states, about 3 or 4 times a year on business and for medical events at the Cleveland Clinic in Weston, FL, I find the same ‘culture shock’ as you describe…and much more. I am 5’9 and weigh 200 lbs but feel very small compared to my shopping companions and family. Sadly, Ecuador is now suffering from the same epidemic of obesity that I never observed 29 years ago.
    I live and work in Guayaquil and am happy to return to my neighborhood of Los Ceibos after a week of stressing it out in the States. I enjoy the occasional friend asking ‘when are you moving back home Jim?’

  • Tom Leonard says:

    Needed to be said. If your friends write about their two months in Ecuador, please send me the link. You and Rita are keen observers of societal differences, but I suspect most travelers just go home and get over their culture shock.

    • Jim W. says:

      “Travelers” don’t have to really “live” in Ecuador. The short time tourists stay in nice hotels, eat places that have been selected for appearance and hopefully, safe for the stomach. They do have the privilege of a very short taste of the physical beauty of the country but never come close to understanding Ecuador.
      We, who by choice, live a different life that can be exciting and satisfying or, if we have to work for a living, can be deceptive, frustrating, and tremendously disappointing whether you speak Spanish, or not. Out there in the work world
      So pretty mountains, jungles, beaches, birds, colorful costumes, delicious foods, smiling faces, welcomes and abrazos might be very deceptive. The old adage, “beware of what you wish for” could be considered a universal maxim.

      • Jim Santos says:

        That’s true, I just wrote a cautionary article for International Living about the difference between visiting a foreign country vs living there. I encourage anyone thinking of moving oversees to spend more time than the average vacation before making the move. I also touched on that topic in a blog, that unfortunately alienated a few Canadians that took it a bit too seriously…

        • Jim W. says:

          🙂 Had to laugh that a few Canadians are offended. Seems like everyone is looking for a reason to be offended. Sometimes I feel surrounded by some very ‘thin skinned’ people who so easily offended. If you don’t ‘saluda’ properly, they are offended..and it goes on and on. You are correct, things are not always what they seem to be on first observation, or even second. One needs a lot of time, good communications skills, and strong skills in observation to see, hear, smell, and taste how ‘things’ really are. It takes time to see through the smoke and mirrors….down the rabbit hole.

  • Merrick says:

    We have a concept for when to throw parts out in the airline industry called BER – Beyond Economic Repair. If the cost of repair of an aircraft part–including labor–is expected to exceed 60% of the cost of a new part, you should scrap the old part and buy a new part. What you’re seeing is nothing more than labor rates being lower in Ecuador, and thus the opportunity cost of time spent repairing something being lower. People in both countries are acting rationally.

  • You could’ve substituted Mexico for Ecuador in this blog post, and it would have been just as veritable.

    • Jim Santos says:

      I agree! Probably several others as well. That’s why I think it is so important for North Americans to get outside the borders and take a look at the larger world around them.

  • Marta says:

    I think that is a very important topic that you started. The more we have, the more we forget about the value of the basic stuff cause we take them for granted. And so a while ago when I was smaller, there was no such thing as throwing away food or not eating all of it from the plate during dinner. If I as a child couldn’t eat it all, my father or uncle or mum would finish it up. Or freeze it to eat the next day.
    But in a very consumer country, as USA is, even for example equipment is made in a way that it only works for 2-3 years now. Which is crazy! And it’s mostly just to make people buy a new one every 2-3 years. Washing machines for example. Earlier they could last even 15 or 20 years!

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