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Talking Trash in the New Year

New Musings from an Old Backpacker


In many ways, I can see conscientiousness about trash has grown in the last three decades: Recycling is rampant, biodegradable is a byword, and most of us wouldn’t dream of littering. I think there is even a consensus state of shame over the garbage mass floating the Pacific, the waning ozone layer, and the many varied forms of pollution seeping into everything. We are working to lessen our negative impact, right some of the wrongs of our forefathers, and keep our surroundings generally tidy.

That said, my latest travel ventures have opened my eyes to new thoughts, namely the amount of waste we create: Individually wrapped everything, somehow still prevalent plastic shopping bags, and even travel-sized throwaways. I grew up learning not to litter, believing in the power of recycling, but never thinking about how to reduce the actual amount of garbage I produced—period. I rarely thought about where it all goes and what happens there.

Then, I met Martijn at Totoco Farm, and his theory made me feel really aware, respectful (of him and the earth), and inspired. Though inconvenient, Martijn works to keep Totoco (the farm and eco-lodge) a 100% waste-free environment. Organic stuff is composted, and recyclables recycled or reused. Electricity is from solar panels and the excess is stored in batteries, of course. The gray water from showers and kitchens goes through bio-filters and is used to water the garden, while toilets are all of the composting variety and go to feeding the plants. The other stuff—amazingly—is hoarded away until he can figure out what to do with it.

Herb Garden Made of Rum and Wine Bottles (as designed by Emma and Ming)

Herb Garden Made of Rum and Wine Bottles (as designed by Emma and Ming)

It is within this other stuff, that which is otherwise destined for the landfill, where much packaging resides. All those wrappers around candy, pasta, rice, cereal, beans, legumes, potato chips, corn chips, microwaveable meals, store-bought bread, snack cakes, 12-packs of soda pop, and just about any purchase-able item that might benefit from see-through packaging: sports equipment, toys, toiletries, cigarettes, drinking straws, magazines, newspapers…Usually, all of this is shoved into plastic bags—often one or two items at a time, taken home, taken out of the plastic bags, and unwrapped. All but the item we wanted is then deposited in another plastic bag (the garbage bag), which eventually goes to live eternally in some other place.

It builds up quickly, even at Totoco (though much less than a normal house), because it’s damn near impossible to avoid in the modern world. Incredibly, Martijn keeps it. He keeps it in a large enclosure made out of old plastic bottles and chicken wire, and he waits for a solution. He waits in hopes that these items can one day be recycled. Occasionally, he comes up with some other temporary fix, like throwing it all in a building’s foundation, in place of some of the concrete that might be used. It’s inorganic, so it’s not going anywhere. But, basically, his idea is that his business has created the mess, so he has to live with it.

It makes no littering seem juvenile. Martijn does more at Totoco—to the extent of storing his own inorganic, unrecyclable waste—than any place I’ve experienced. Again, there is no human waste (composting toilets), no organic waste (animal and plant food) and though it continues to pile up in his massive reused-plastic bottle storage bin, no inorganic waste. And, when you have to live with it all—possibly forever—you don’t think twice about turning down those meaningless shopping bags, take-out utensils, and snack foods in shiny, ever-lasting wrappers. You do think about how what you’re buying is packaged.

Piles of Garbage, Right Where It Should Be But No Less Disturbing

Piles of Garbage, Right Where It Should Be But No Less Disturbing

By now, we’ve all read lists on reducing our waste: composting organic material, reusable shopping bags, refillable bottles, and simply being mindful about buying unnecessarily pre-packaged items (especially things like carrots, lettuce, etc.) and overly packaged items (like snack packs or portioned cookies). By now, we should all be recycling when possible (or feeling shameful if we don’t). But, for me, it’s time to start anew. The list of things we can do—I’ve been learning to do—grows and grows, and my many years of inactive apathy cause me true sorrow.

This year, I pledge to create less waste. I would love to measure the reduction, but being on the road makes that difficult. So, I was hoping some friends and family with firm addresses and their own trash woes might join me. The goal would be to last longer and longer before filling and emptying the landfill-bound items in your garbage can. I’d love to get a few volunteers and regularly feature your progress on a new blog (or forum, in which we could all participate, adding helpful tips and other stuff we learn, even of only be providing links to useful articles, etc.). Please contact me at [email protected] if you’re interested. And, don’t hesitate because the more who join me, the better for the world.

Posted by jonathonengels 13:53 Archived in Nicaragua Tagged travel farm living backpacking environment expat

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