The Age of Plastic in Cuba

Regina Cano

Pomos-Ciego-Montero-y-Sierra-Canasta-Foto-TrabajadoresHAVANA TIMES — Though not invented in Cuba, plastic is one of those products that are indispensable in the lives of Cubans (as I imagine it is in many other poor countries around the world).

I assume readers will agree with me as to how important the discovery of plastic – and its many uses – has been for civilization, and with respect to the damages its use entails (as many studies have shown). As far as I know, no suggestion as to how to dispose of or recycle these materials fully solves the problem, because plastics do not degrade.

The recycling of plastic products in Cuba has gone through different phases, but, as I recall – and at the risk of having you accuse me of being repetitive – it had its peak moment during the so-called “Special Period” of the ‘90s, when it was used as a household solution for many things. Even today, it continues to offer solutions for people (who have accumulated experience in its use or, better said, have acquired the bad habits of those who do not have many options at hand).

Plastic has indeed become a handy tool to overcome many shortages. Its use is highly varied.

Plastic (polypropylene) bottles – called pepinos (“cucumbers”) or balas (“bullets”) in Cuba – are among the most commonly used plastic products. They are used mostly to store and transport liquids for immediate (or not so immediate) consumption, such as soft drinks, juices, water, yogurt, milk, milkshakes, fermented drinks and rum. It is also used to store vinagre, dry wine, tomato, garlic and onion pastes, as well as lard (in its liquid state). Household cleaning and personal hygiene products are also bottled, as are (less commonly) cereals and grains that people seek to protect from insects and mites.

A more surprising – though, for some, entirely normal – phenomenon is the use of plastic (polyethylene) bags in lieu of tape to cover up electrical connections, make old pressure cookers and percolators seal better and even to plug up a leak in the plumbing.

For Cubans, these two types of plastics are as valuable or more valuable than the products for such purposes sold at stores, and I am sure you will understand why (their price, in Cuban Convertible Pesos or CUCs, never seems to be in step with their actual value).

Though those who have now become self-employed have sold substitutes for such receptacles for years, some are unhygienic and short-lived, for the various alloys used in their production – melted down and reassembled – are dubious mixes that tend to fray and end up in one’s mouth.

A day at the beach is not often without liquids bottled in pepinos. Nor are these absent in people’s daily trips around town – many people carry water around because of the heat and in order not to drink anything at public establishments, because of the epidemics that are common during the summer.

These containers are also used to store cold foods. People tend to freeze and then thaw foods this way. I am told that is the moment when foods release most of their toxins.

It is not uncommon to be sold a product in a container that has already been used to store liquids that became fermented or eroded the container…it is an endless chain of dubious recycling.

Used and re-used until they are done for, plastics do not intimidate Cubans, for they consider any dangerous impact on their health to be far-fetched.

These never-ending consequences of poverty inspire me to paraphrase the lyrics of a song by the Cuban rock band Porno para Ricardo: “I don’t like plastic, but plastic likes me, comrade.” It seems we will continue to co-exist with and be the victims of plastic, that Cuba’s national drama will not spare us its poisonous grip but will rather favor it.

Regina Cano

Regina Cano: I have lived my entire life in Havana, Cuba – the island from which I’ve still never left, and which I love. I was born on September 9, and my parents chose my name out of superstition, but my mother raised me outside the religion professed by her family. I studied accounting and finance at the University of Havana, a profession that I’m not engaged in for the time being, and that I substituted for doing crafts, some ceramics, and studying a little English and about painting. Ah! – concerning my picture: I identify with Rastafarian principles, but I am not one of them. I wear this cap from time to time, but I assure you I just didn't have a better picture.

2 thoughts on “The Age of Plastic in Cuba

  • July 7, 2014 at 1:08 am
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    Regina, you are right, plastic does not degrade, at least not ina reasonable time-scale. That is why the folly of the plastic water bottle is so damaging to the environment. ‘real socialist’ systems have always failed to understand that copying the worst of capitalism serves nobody long-term. Bring back returnable glass bottles wth deposits.

    Reply
  • July 8, 2014 at 11:25 am
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    Polypropylene is degraded by exposure to UV radiation. Given Cuba’s sunny climate, there is enough UV to break down the plastic fairly quickly.

    Reply

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