One of Valparaiso's new painted garbage trucks UnKolorDistinto

Valparaiso, Chile's third-largest city, is tackling its garbage problem with a new fleet of brightly painted trucks.

A gigantic dog looks intently at a bone poking out of the trash. Two cats lick their lips at the sight of a fish served on a big platter. A woman hangs laundry from her window above narrow alleyways.

These colorful vignettes are on a new fleet of garbage trucks in the Chilean port city of Valparaiso, created by graffiti artists Sammy Espinosa and Cynthia Aguilera, known as UnKolorDistinto (A Different Color).

Another of the city's new trucks (UnKolorDistinto)

In contrast with Chile's orderly capital, Santiago, only 90 minutes away, the bohemian port city of Valpo—as it is commonly known—has packs of dogs and cats that wander up and down its steep hills, through rickety clapboard or metal buildings and winding alleys, rummaging through trash. "The images [on the trucks] are an interpretation of what happens in this town, with a touch of surrealism," says Aguilera.

The municipality of Valparaiso hired UnKolorDistinto to paint the garbage trucks as part of a campaign to change people's attitudes about waste disposal, in an attempt to address what has become a chronic problem for the city.

The issue is partly due to geography. Built across 45 hills that descend toward a bay, Valparaiso has narrow passageways that can sometimes be reached only on foot. And the timing of collection is crucial: If residents leave their garbage out at the wrong time, chances are that the huge population of strays (NGOs calculate there are 20,000 stray dogs) will rip through the bags in search of food.

A lack of resources contributes to the problem. In the 19th century, as a stop for ships en route from Europe to California via the Strait of Magellan, Valparaiso was flush with commerce. It was home to banks and businesses, Chile's first stock exchange, and beautiful villas. Modern British funicular railways, or ascensores, were built to go up and down the steepest hills.

But Valparaiso's descent was quick. A powerful earthquake in 1906 killed 4,000 people and devastated the port. The last straw came with the 1914 opening of the Panama Canal that gave way to new, and faster, shipping routes. Businesses left town, and artists and writers (including Nobel Laureate Pablo Neruda) established themselves here.

Valparaiso (Santiago Llanquin/AP)

In 2003, UNESCO added the city to its World Heritage List. Revitalization is under way but has been bumpy. In 2013, negotiations between municipal workers and the local government brought the garbage collection to a halt for close to a month. Chile's government declared a alert because of the health risks of thousands of tons of trash piled up. A year later, a huge fire swept through the city, fed by wood buildings and the amount of garbage that lies in the ravines between the hills.

When Mayor Jorge Castro was elected in 2008, he pledged to tackle the garbage problem. Last year, he launched a campaign called Cleanliness is Culture (Limpieza es Cultura), which aims to make people more aware of and involved in the issue while transforming a perceived negative—garbage collection—into something almost cool.

The city's huge population of strays contributes to its garbage woes. (Eliseo Fernandez/Reuters)

The city has set up a hotline for citizens to report uncollected trash and ask for special pickups if big heaps accumulate. Castro wants to rely on citizens' good will; the assumption is they will leave the trash out at the times they should and work with authorities.

Then city leaders came up with the painted garbage-truck idea, tapping into Valparaiso's graffiti culture. The city council bought a fleet of 11 new automated garbage trucks and commissioned UnKolorDistinto to create 22 original paintings on them (one per side), paid for by the company that sold the trucks.

After six months, the results are anecdotal, but positive.

"Earlier, people would move away from the garbage trucks because of the smell, but now they get closer to take pictures," says Espinosa, one of the artists. "Now they even know the times they have to put out the garbage because they look out for the drawings."

Espinosa believes there has also been a shift in attitudes about street art, demonstrated by the city's embrace of it for this program. Street artists—UnKolorDistinto among them—used to get fined, but now their work is seen as an opportunity to revive neglected public spaces.

"Valpo has a major problem: It is beautiful, but it is in ruins, and people don't look after it," says Aguilera, the other member of UnKolorDistinto. "Everybody throws garbage in the street; they don't care. With paintings and murals, we can rescue public spaces that have been abandoned—for example, garbage trucks."

It's strange, at first, to think of garbage trucks as part of the urban realm. But they are—so why not remind people of that, and celebrate it? On its own, the garbage-truck-painting initiative "may not be a way to solve the trash problem in Valparaiso, but it's a way for citizens to become more conscious and to participate," as Espinosa says.

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