The Problems of Ushuaia & Many Towns Alike

Having spent a serious amount of time at the Earthship Biotecture build down here in Ushuaia Argentina.

What has (re)occurred to me has been profound and humbling to say the least.


Where to begin – Ushuaia is a beautiful town located at the Southern Tip of the America’s – it’s a fairly young town that is centered around a few electronics manufacturing and assembly plants as well as a small port city for shipments in the area. With a population of roughly 90,000 its a town that has absolutely exploded in growth considering it had a population of 3,000 about 30 years ago. It is the unofficial town at The End of the World and the cast off point for expeditions to Antarctica. With tourists running all over – hostels and hotels regularly full – restaurants and shopping opportunity around every corner it seems like a normal small town with a unique (and unappealing) architecture. It’s almost like the town was thrown together by a whole bunch of bad “do it yourself-ers” and that’s being fairly polite.

The city is in an area without taxes – almost like a Native Reserve – although it isn’t a Native town (due to the English Empire) but is rich in some of the most beautiful mountainous landscapes you have seen in a long time.  It’s a town with some modern day challenges that this town faces as it continues to attract more and more newcomers.

But don’t take it from just from me here’s a video that expresses more about it:

Beautiful Town At The End of the World

What is a relevant issue today though is how the town is unable to deal with this explosive growth. From being a small unknown town to being a major touristic and work attraction the economy here has mushroomed into something positive economically – but very very negatively from an environmental standpoint.

This town has 3 major issues that fall within this Environmental degradation:

Dumping Raw Sewage Directly In The Bay

It doesn’t take a scientist to know that dumping raw sewage into the towns main water supply and bay is not an environmentally sound idea.

Now its one thing to do such when you are a small town of 3,000 but another to continue to do it with 90,000 inhabitants. In fact the problem got so bad that they had to divert pipes further away from town behind the airport so nobody can see the main sewage drain pipes without illegally stepping onto an airfield. There are stories about how the Bay use to be so much bigger and use to freeze and be a place for families to play hockey and do some ice skating. That people use to fish directly off the docks and shore. But none of this is the case anymore as the water poses a serious health hazard and is forbidden to swim, fish or skate on (apparently it doesn’t even freeze properly anymore in the calmer Bay section where most of the sewage was dumped for years.

To be honest I believe it!

here is where our turds go

With the stench – lack of plant life or any life for that matter surrounding this Bay its absolutely amazing what this town did to one of their main water supplies right in the heart of the town in such a short period of time. The amount of waste this town produced in fact not only filled the Bay in one way but also in the form of a landfill which brings us to our next issue.

“Waste Culture” & Poor Recycling Programs

Ushuaia’s “waste culture” is incredible – although you can’t find a plastic bag anywhere in these parts – the sheer amount of garbage you see littering the streets tells you enough.

Due to the higher wages in this town and a population that isn’t use to earning so much – Ushuaia is a highly consumeristic city. People buy new clothing – cellphones – cars and all kinds around here with their stronger wages. Although prices of food, rent and other things reflect such within the town as well they still are raising their general standard of living significantly. With higher wages comes more waste. I mean lets just look at the western world’s consumption of goods and waste versus smaller less financially sound countries’. It’s no contest – just a race to the bottom.

Screen Shot 2014-01-28 at 3.13.57 AM

Not only do they over consume but they also waste lots of natural gas energy due to large subsidies on this gas in the province leading people to not care about wasting it. Because of such every building has its heating on all year long despite many indoor places being uncomfortably hot and having all their doors and windows open to cool off. (Let’s not even go into how the fracking of this gas in the area is also horrible for their water tables and environment which should realistically be item number four on the list.)

As we know – unsustainable consumption has consequences. From landfills that have overflowed in 8 years when they were bought to last 20 – to piles of garbage in forests – streams – the bay and around – to a stockpile of tires bottles and cans as far as the eye can see – it’s fairly obvious what is happening here and what is and has been happening for years around the world.

Some interesting and depressing facts about Ushuaia’s recycling program:

  • The cities recycling program has only existed for 2 years
  • In this time span they have collected 18,000 tires with many more still to be collected
  • Each tire must be cut down into strips for which they only can do 1 tire at a time and collect tires faster than they can strip them.
  • The recycling doesn’t actually happen here but in Buenos Aires over 3,500KM away
  • When the products are recycled they are only able to reuse about 25% of the materials within some of the plastics
  • It takes a whopping 18,000 recycled tires to make one synthetic football/soccer field
  • An overwhelming majority of people in Ushuaia don’t recycle and mostly have to walk numerous blocks away from their homes if they wanted to
  • The recycling and landfill sites are filling up in less than 50% of the time they were purchased to be used and there is not much more land for the government to be able to buy or use that isn’t part of a Protected National Forest

Slum Housing & Deforestation

Slums are no stranger to Latin America – but they are quite the extreme situation in a town with very little sunlight in the winter, a cold climate and short and basically inexistent growing seasons.

Stack that with a town that is running out of land and that is growing at an increasing pace and what you get is a town lacking proper infrastructure. People are pouring into the town with the hopes of earning a decent living or to find a job and what they are doing to be able to live here is chopping down the forest. Deforestation and desertification are the biggest issues creating climate change in our world today – so let’s not scoff at the loss of  a few trees as in fact this is a serious issue. Many poorer visitors have come to set up shop in a slum known as El Escondido – which translate to “The Hidden”.


Ironically though they aren’t hidden at all as when you look at the town from the bay’s perspective you see a huge ugly cut in the forest of the south side of town and can see this area very clearly. They are without a doubt forgotten however – swept under the political rug and shamed by the division of the “civilized town” as locals would call it below. They are an area without natural gas lines – no electricity (unless they are stealing it) no running water and horribly steep and shady roads which must be an absolute nightmare in winter. The housing conditions are not the best either. With no real finishing and lots of shady construction made using the trees they cut to clear the land and abiding by no building codes whatsoever – it truly isn’t the nicest part of town.

What is scary is this isn’t even all that horrible of a slum as there are many many towns around the world with similar issues.

el escondido far

Many Town Alike

Although painted in this light – it seems like the town of Ushuaia is a particularly problematic place – the reality is towns like this (or likely worse) exist EVERYWHERE in the world.

Of course I can point to the slums of India, Brazil or any “developing” area as being bad but the truth is all towns have these exact problems. It’s not like recycling in most parts of the world is really much of a solution. It’s not like our sewers don’t run right into the waters from which we drink or that our towns weren’t once lush with nature and bountiful with wildlife.

The truth is towns themselves and our consumeristic society has its dire consequences.
However there are solutions to such issues but to learn more about them you will have to stay tuned on our YouTube Channel or wait until our next post.

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