Undergraduate Blog / Career Development

Creating a Zero-Waste Environment

One of the first things I learned about permaculture upon arriving at Verdenergia is that permaculture requires an intimate relationship between people and their local communities. Permaculture also acknowledges that there is no such thing as waste. I have been accustomed to thinking of garbage as waste. I think many of us have. We pile up bins filled with rubbish and then facilities (at Babson), or some other private or public agency comes to collect our trash, at which point, we never have to face our trash again. I have hardly thought about what happens to my trash once it leaves my house, much less my residence hall. I think I speak for many of us when I say that the luxury of living in the United States has allowed us to ignore the impact of our waste, but waste is waste and it does not just disappear.

This past spring semester, I studied abroad in Ghana, West Africa with 18 other students from colleges and universities throughout the United States. Many of the students acknowledged or complained about the lack of proper waste management in Ghana. There were few rubbish bins on the streets, and most waste was thrown on the ground, in gutters, or in some areas, into a forest if one was close by. The streets were definitely not lined with garbage, but it was evident that waste management was an issue. But in truth, every space in this world has a problem with waste management if people are not finding a way to make their waste usable.

Until now, I have accepted, that the United States has good waste management because we don’t have to live with our trash. Even super urban areas, such as my hometown in Brooklyn, NY made trash disappear quickly enough for me to feel comfortable. But I’ve been forced out of my comfort zone. Forced to ask myself, what exactly is waste management? Does waste management mean that waste disappears from our physical environments and disappears? Does it mean that waste is brought from wealthier communities to poorer communities? Does it mean that holes are dug in the ground to bury toxic materials that take thousands of years to decompose? Does it mean that things are recycled and reused? Are things actually being recycles? How much of what we put in the recycle bins are actually recycled?

At Verdenergia, there is no such thing as waste. Every input has an output and every output has a space, in which it serves a purpose of giving back to the people and/or the land. There are compost buckets for the rabbits, goats, horse, worms (which eat any cooked food, molded or not), citrus (which includes citrus fruits and hard to break down plant materials including yucca and avocado skins). We have boxes organized by the following categories: “burnables” include all paper and cloth materials that can be burned; “hard plastics” such as soda bottles can be reused as containers or used in building; “nonrecyclable plastics” such as snack or candy wrappers that cannot be recycled usually end up in buildings, and “glass” and “metal” containers are reused for storage for building. Dirt and dust are swept up and return to the earth.

These are not the only waste materials the farm uses. One of the biggest “waste management” issues is fecal matter. Verdenergia has a human compost system with a “Caca Bucket.” “Caca” is a Spanish word for poop. This bathroom is made out of wood, including a wooden toilet seat with no bottom. An empty bucket is placed underneath the toilet seat, and is exchanged every time the bucket gets full. Everyone uses the caca bucket to poop and covers their waste with sawdust after each use to keep the smell low (and it works!). Each morning, one volunteer, intern, or tribe member is assigned to caca duty, where s/he empties the caca buckets. This poop goes to wire barrels constructed by people on the farm, where they sit for 6-12 months before going into the jungle to fertilize wild plants and trees. After this time, most of the poop’s toxins from food, alcohol, drugs (antibiotics are terrible for the garden; they kill the bacteria needed to make healthy, life-giving soils), and environmental toxins are neutralized and are ready for composting. It smells and looks and feels like soil. Nevertheless, to be safe, human compost is not used for edible fruits and vegetables. In order to speed up the composting process, we sometimes use an EM “effective microorganisms” spray to help the fecal matter decompose.

The showers and sinks are connected to grey water systems that feed into one of the two streams running alongside the main living headquarters. All members of the community are asked to use natural and organic soaps, shampoos, conditioners, and laundry detergents, and are encouraged to use soap made on the farm or from neighboring farms, which are available for everyone to use.

Clothing is another big area of waste on the finca. Everything finds its way, full circle, back into the farm. We have a recycling center where people can donate clothing they no longer want, clothing that has been unclaimed, or clothing that has been attacked by mold (We are in very damp and humid climates on the finca and mold wastes no time. It just attacks.) Really old rags and clothing are cut up into rags to clean the cow and goat utters before milking, or to clean the house. I’ve learned a lot about the creative art of clothing design and re-making. Taking old, unwanted clothing and creating something original and beautiful. One of my lovely fellow interns, Tonya, is returning to her home in Portland, Oregon on Sunday. She is the cob-queen, the t-shirt re-making queen, a real life fairy. J She taught me some of her tricks on how to make newness out of old things, treasures out of what might otherwise become trash.

My awareness of how my actions affect the greater society, our planet, and our futures, has heightened greatly. I am choosing to focus my future purchases on second-hand, used items. It takes a lot of physical, chemical, and human energy, transportation energy, raw material sourcing energy, and often pollution and water energy to create each article of clothing I purchase, each meal I eat outside, each bag of multigrain chips I buy, each product I buy that isn’t local, whether over the internet or in stores. I have realized that in many ways, I have become a victim of convenience, making choices, often without a sense of consciousness and awareness as to how my actions align with the well-being of the inhabitants of this planet, and the planet itself. I don’t worry because I choose to direct my energy more constructively to intentionally create what I want. I feel the need for balance, from personal to universal. I understand that balance starts with me. I want my actions to align with the world I would like to see.

I believe we’ve got some big problems ahead of us, (many have been and are in the midst of us now), if we don’t become aware of what is going on around the world, from governments, starting with our own, to industries and companies and practices we’ve adopted as a society, to the ways we evaluate growth and economies. I am working to inform myself. But we have got a lot more problems if we do not become attuned to our own feelings, our own actions, and our own habits. We have got to start healing our own lives, finding balance in our own lives, choosing better feeling things, choosing health and healing and love and whatever feels authentic and true to us. We’ve got to start communicating honestly, and demanding better from ourselves. It is so easy to get wrapped up in what isn’t going the way we want it to, outside of ourselves. It is so easy to point fingers, or complain, or see the flaws in our society, corporations, our government, our media; etc. It can be revelatory to start seeing inconsistencies outside of ourselves, a sort of wake-up call. But it can also be distracting. If we aren’t fixing our own habits and seeing where there are inconsistencies within ourselves, we’re missing the most important piece of the puzzle to allowing and creating a world of well-being for ourselves and others. If we were living our truths, it would not matter that anyone else was not living our truth, or even out-of-alignment with their truths. We would be a bright light, shining into what seems like an abyss. We would be a vortex of love and truth and peace and joy and amazingnessss. It would be contagious. I mean, how can we give that which we don’t truly know or have ourselves. It seems that once we connect to our own joy, we can overflow with joy. Joy spills over into our relationships, our daily experiences, and is healing for us and those with whom we interact.

I am choosing to eliminate waste, not just in my environment, but in my life, in my mind, in my habits. Waste doesn’t just disappear. It must be avoided or re-directed. I’m so grateful for the model of waste-management at Verdenergia, and I am working on that within myself. As within, so without.

I leave with you one of my favorite quotes, which many of you may be familiar with:

“Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, ‘Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous?’ Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won’t feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine, as children do. We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It’s not just in some of us; it’s in everyone. And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.” – Marianne Williamson
Sending you sooo much love and pura vida from Costa Rica!