Public Recycling Container


Public Recycling Container

Public Recycling in Old Town Havana


It’s been a while since I’ve posted about recycling in other countries. I haven’t been anywhere except Ocean City, MD, which terminated its curbside collection in 2010. However, last month I was lucky enough to travel with my Mom and adult children to Cuba. And I do mean lucky! A week before we were to leave, the US announced restrictions sharply curtailing travel. Fortunately, we already had our tickets so we were “grandfathered” in.


Cuba is known for reuse – famous for the 1950’s cars kept running during 60 years of embargo through creativity, perseverance and recycling. Of course, I had to know more about traditional recycling: bottles, cans and paper. There is no curbside collection but there were collection containers in public spaces.  When there weren’t, enterprising individuals were at work.  I was somewhat surprised that plastic bottles are the recyclable of choice.  In the US we are used to seeing aluminum cans collected.  Time after time, I marveled that plastic bottles were plucked out of the trash cans while the aluminum cans were left behind. I was not able to get a clear answer on my own.  My daughter, who speaks Spanish fluently, refused to ask. Retrieving our luggage from a bus one day, I spied a large cardboard box, full of empty water bottles. I couldn’t get my camera out in time to snap a shot but after seeing that, I had to find out why plastic bottles?


Tap water is not potable so everyone, Cubans and tourists alike, drinks bottled water. Our hostess at our “casa particular” (privately owned guest house) assured us that the water at breakfast had been boiled first. It crossed my mind that the bottles were re-used when we bought a sandwich and were given a complimentary mango juice in what was obviously a water bottle.

Since returning home, I’ve done some research and sure enough, the first item listed in “Ten Things Cubans Never Throw Away” is plastic bottles. They are refilled with boiled water for drinking, used as containers for bulk foods (i.e. coffee beans) and converted into homemade “Tupperware.”  The number 2 recyclable is glass bottles, which are also filled with homemade juices and sauces and cut to make drinking glasses. Finally, at number 3, are aluminum cans, which are resold to buy back centers but also used to make souvenirs, jewelry and purses.

The can collector interviewed in one article was proud of his job. “I’m convinced that my work keeps my city beautiful and clean.” If only US cities had such dedicated recyclers! Although it is unfortunate that recycling is necessary to supplement his income, this type of informal recycling is common in many parts of the world. Source separated, they’re clean and have value so they do get recycled.


Cuba implemented a recycling policy in 2011 and government cooperatives purchase the collected recyclables from these independent collectors. Some are used in domestic manufacturing and some are exported.  In 2014, Cuba provided a list of projects looking for foreign investment, which included recycling infrastructure. In 2016, our trade organization, Institute for Scrap Recycling Industries (ISRI) attended the XIV International Congress for Recycling, to explore the opportunities for ISRI members to do business with Cuba. Given the current political climate, the US and its allies are unlikely to invest anytime soon.


Rather than focusing on exporting our concept of recycling to the Cubans, we should look to their example of re-use. Perhaps what has been born out of scarcity and necessity is the sustainability model those of us in the “throw away” society should emulate.

For more information, and great pictures of Cuban creativity and re-use, check out “Cuba’s Zero Waste – Recycling Like You’ve Never Seen Before –   Cuba Recycles Everything” by Cassandra

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