Necessity — and scarcity — make Cubans masters of recycling
By Doreen Hemlock
Posted January 11 2007
HAVANA, Cuba ? Ariel Rodriguez makes new keys from old ones. He shapes
them on a 1953 key-copying machine that he bought broken and fixed with
parts from a grain mill. He shines them on a key polisher he rebuilt
with a washing-machine motor.
Next to him at a government-run repair center, Raul Leiva fixes
eyeglasses from old frames.
Faced with chronic shortages, meager salaries and the United States'
economic embargo, Cubans have mastered the art of recycling. The
socialist government promotes the practice as a way to save the planet.
But for most Cubans, it's more about saving themselves.
"Cave men figured out how to cook with fire. We invent ways to get by,"
said Rodriguez, 34, who buys old keys mostly from struggling retirees
who scavenge their neighborhoods looking for extras to sell. "It's a
question of survival."
Just about everything in Cuba seems to be re-used. Coffee grounds from
the morning brew become fertilizer in gardens. A plastic CD cover
doubles as a picture frame. And the cardboard centers from toilet paper
rolls serve as hair rollers for women.
Stop at a food stand, and the drinking glasses are cut down Havana Club
rum bottles. Buy dessert at a bakery, and flan pudding comes in the base
of a soda can. String beans at the farmers market are tied together with
a scrap of cloth from old pants.
Fernando Alberto Delgado makes his living refilling disposable lighters,
charging clients a fraction of what it would cost for new ones. He
injects the lighter fluid using an old aerosol can that once held
"Everyone buys from me, the young and old. It's cheaper for them," said
Delgado, 37, a plumber who claims to make more money in the
Cuba's socialist government long has extolled the value of recycling. In
1961, Ernesto "Che" Guevara led a state company to recoup metals and
other materials from waste. The objective: to save on imports, boost
exports, expand industry and create jobs.
But recycling soared in the 1990s by necessity after the collapse of the
Soviet Union and the end of Soviet subsidies. At the depth of the
post-Soviet crisis, some Cubans made stew from the skins of plantains
and "steaks" from grapefruit rinds. To this day, plastic bags are
routinely washed and hung out to dry.
Quite literally, recycling on this Caribbean island has become an art.
Craftsmen fashion coconuts into decorative boats and cigar labels into
coasters for sale to tourists with foreign currency. A popular souvenir
in Havana is a faux-camera: A wooden frame is covered with aluminum from
cans. A viewer is formed from a pull-top tab. Press a scrap metal lever,
and out pops a smiley face, made from a plastic bottle cap.
Barbaro Bernardo Diaz Osuna, 35, incorporates Cuban newspapers into his
colorful, acrylic paintings, so tourists can remember when they visited.
He also uses labels from Bucanero beer and Havana Club rum in collages
to identify his works as Cuban.
"Newspapers long have been resources for art. The Dada movement used
them, as did Cubists and Picasso in his collages," the self-taught
Cuba's cash-strapped government often touts recycling as
environmentalism. A recent article in Communist Party newspaper Granma
urged paper recycling to save forests and stem the spread of garbage
dumps. Another promoted the government's push to replace old,
energy-guzzling appliances with new, mainly Chinese-made ones as a way
to cut oil consumption.
Unlike European and U.S. cities, Cuba has few formal programs for recycling.
The United Nations has one in Pinar del Rio province to encourage
residents to separate glass, plastics and other recyclables from their
garbage. But much of Cuba's push to recycle goods comes from personal
initiative, such as neighbors picking up leftovers from workplace
lunchrooms to feed their pigs, said Alberto D. Perez, a U.N. spokesman
In a nation where salaries average $15 a month, necessity motivates.
"Sure, I'd like to use fresh, new supplies," said eyeglass repairman
Leiva, 69. "But used ones are cheaper, and I can't charge too much to
the people. They can't afford it."
Doreen Hemlock can be reached at email@example.com.