Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Three Months of… Trash!

Yesterday marks the three-month anniversary of my arrival here in site as a Peace Corps Volunteer! Three months living with my host family, getting to feel like home here, and starting to get a clue about my work... and also three months of making trash. Trash management is a big issue in my community, as for many in Guatemala – with rampant consumerism, poorly organized public education, and ineffective municipal management, many rivers and roadsides overfill with trash.

As an Environment volunteer I’ve already done my fair share of preaching to local school kids about the issue, but as the saying goes… preaching doesn’t do much without the practice behind it. Thus it occurred to me to save my trash in these first months and make myself publicly accountable to how well I’m actually doing with the 4 R’s I talk so much about.


Much to my initial excitement three months ago, my host family habitually separates their organic and inorganic trash for animal fodder, so a picture of my organic trash right now would look a lot like the family cow! We don't compost paper, so I'll put that under the false heading of ¨Inorganics¨ for now.

Drum roll please... INORGANICS!

The True Trash
This is stuff - in the black bag in the upper left hand corner and a dirty cake box - that I just didn’t want to deal with or is highly tainted with organics: It may not be honest, but I plan to take this stuff and drop it off in a public trash can in the nearest big city with a sanitary landfill the next time I’m there. I’ll report back how this goes. The dirty paper I'll give to my host family to burn in their wood stove, if they want it.

The Cheating Factor
I also need to fess up to having added my own toilet paper – some seven rolls in these three months – to the family and office bathroom wastebins. It just wasn’t something I wanted to deal with. We can assume that’s all going to a nearby barranco. I also have used plenty of styrofoam when someone offered me a snack - you just can't refuse generosity here! - and thrown it in the bin when taking it home would make people think I was an alien.

I plan to stuff the soda bottles with the clean plastic packaging I've hoarded these three months (in the two large black bags above) and contribute this to my office’s upcoming ecoladrillo (¨eco-brick¨) drive. Cans make great pencil holders; and clean peanut butter jars for food storage. Possibilities with trash are endless.

Cans, plastic, and paper are recycled in the region. The town’s can-buying man passes in pick-up every Wednesday announcing his presence with much ceremony with his megaphone (yocomprolatashierrolamina...), and I plan to take advantage. My current obstacle with recycling plastic and paper is that cans are about 10x as valuable, so one person uses nowhere near enough paper nor plastic to sell it to anyone. We’re talking about possibly starting a recycling center here in town to sell to buyers in the city, but until then I’ll just be holding onto the stuff.

Analysis and Implications for Future Work
I am pretty satisfied with my trash production, at least with the small amount of stuff I plan to throw away. I seem room for improvement, though; volume-wise my three biggest sources of trash are toilet paper, canned beans, and plastic packaging.

For plastic, my goal for the next months is to try to buy more grains and bread from bulk using re-usable plastic bags; for cans, I'm going to try to make more beans from dried bulk, especially on the wood stove if I can. Really I’d need an environmental engineer to do the analysis for me and tell me whether buying canned beans, making them from dried on the gas stove, or making them on the wood stove is less environmentally costly, but nmot having access to this at the moment, I’m going to guess the more local the better.

I’m not sure I’m ready to tackle the toilet paper issue, but I’ll think about it. At least I’ll be getting some GladRags from the US next month, which in concert with the fabulous DivaCup will eliminate my waste from sanitary pads!

Thanks folks. Keep an eye out for another trash update in another three months! (Yay, something to look forward to...)

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