Trash in Your Face

Probably my favorite reuse
Probably my favorite reuse

When coffee speaks, it says, “hold on a second; I have to go take out the trash.”

Ingenuity is sustainable, and in the past 7 months I’ve seen some of the most impressively reuses for stuff I would have never even thought to reuse. To me they seem downright ingenious, but around here ingenious reuses are common practice:
• Outdated Costa Rican Billboards are reincarnated as walls, roofs, truck bed covers, signs. Alvin and the Chipmunks divide the bathroom from the kitchen, Imperial Beer covers a load of just picked bananas, flapping at the corners, full speed down the highway. Korr soup mix stretched tight between two trees, keeping out the rain. Backs of low interest loans now advertise the price of ripe pegibayes.

• Car hood hung on a tree as a neighborhood sign (because there are no official street signs in Costa Rica, people improvise on to make their own)

• BYO 2 liter Pepsi bottle to pick up fresh milk from the local dairy farm

• Fertilizer sacks as picking basket belts (and bags for picked coffee cherries, and bags to carry baby chickens…)

• Coffee burlap sacks as doormats

• Pringles can as Tupperware

• Half a tire as salt-for-cattle/horses holder

• Cut gasoline tanks as coffee picking buckets, watering cans, and flower pots

• Rice cookers as flowerpots

Stores that sell no plastic bottles, and no containers that can’t be reused (other than tin tuna cans). Glass bottles go back to beverage (beer and soda) companies, and chips, candy, bread, water (yes, water), and milk (yes, milk) are sold in plastic bags and wrappings that can be burnt.

This might not seem sustainable, but living in small rural communities there is no kidding oneself about where trash goes: into the ground or into the fire. All trash that is collected by any municipal government system in any developed or developing place goes the same two places: landfill or incinerator.

On the large scale I don’t know which is actually environmentally more detrimental in terms of air quality vs. ground water and soil quality damage, but on the small scale, burying trash takes up space that could be used for other things, like planting food, so most people opt for burning their trash (which can also serve as firestarter for cooking fires). When there is no municipal trash pickup to hide your waste for you, you have to learn to manage it yourself, and there’s no mystery about the only two options available.

I remember being momentarily shocked when one of the first families I visited in Costa Rica had a big trash pit behind their house. I was appalled for a second then thought, “but, well, like, a lot of the time, that’s where it goes.” I had to come to the same conclusion after again being initially grossed out when the bus filled with the smell of burning plastic as we drove by people standing in front of a pile of trash on fire. I came to get used to the smell because, like, that’s where trash goes.

If you are in fact burying your trash, either all of it or just what you don’t burn, it might actually be environmentally better to spread it out and bury a little bit here and a little bit there rather than concentrating it in one festering mass, which will probably contaminate the water and soil more immediately and directly. People usually spread it out inadvertently by tossing it where it lands. Creating any scale of landfill takes some sort of organization, and people in tropical countries are not used to having to organize their waste, because not long ago all of it was in fact organic (potato skins, banana peels, rice hulls, fish bones) and could in fact just be tossed anywhere. As people’s food purchasing and consumption habits shifted to include processed, and thus packaged, foods, trash cans and dump trucks and roads to drive them on didn’t magically appear, so people treat a chip bag as the same as plantain peel: chuck it into the grass.

Because at the end of the day all trash does get buried or burned, that’s why it’s important to make sure we generate as little as possible that makes it to that fork in the road.

In these same rural communities with mini, personal landfills and cooking fires started with Dorito and Snickers wrappers, people use the plastic bag 1kg of rice came in to carry a bag full of cooked rice across the street to their neighbor. The bag is then washed and used to do the same thing again over and over. Small plastic containers (like 12 oz Fanta bottles) divvy up the contents of larger plastic ones (4 liter jugs of vegetable oil). Old clothes become cleaning cloths and dish towels and stuffing for the baby’s cradle. Pots with the bottoms burnt through become planters.

Everything that comes across the threshold of a home gets used until it can’t be used any more, then it gets used as firestarter, and only if it doesn’t make that cut does it get tossed into the bushes or a hole in the ground.

But the amount that gets tossed is comparably little because people are still using naturally occurring (and therefore inherently biodegradable) materials to do a lot of what they do. In Panamanian indigenous communities fish fresh from the fishing boats is wrapped in the natural Tupperware of banana leaves. Roofs are made out of palm leaves. All boats oats and building materials are made from trees. Purses are woven from grasses.

Obviously we can’t all go grab banana leaves and forego plastic Tupperware, but we can think twice about using something we already have before buying something new that just generates more trash to deal with later.

No matter appearance of how it gets there, be it sleek garbage can and government vehicle or directly within the space of one’s own property, all trash anywhere in the world suffers one of the same two fates: fire pit or hole in the ground. While we probably don’t want to adopt the tropical practices of digging our own holes and lighting our own fires to take care of our trash, we can all learn a lot from the tropical practices of really reusing something until it can’t do anything any more, before submitting it to one of those two inevitable trash fates.



  1. Excellent observation Rachel. The two options you point out seem to be universal. As a health and safety professional, I have great concerns with the burning option as it releases untold numbers of chemicals into the air. The burned contents of plastics and other processed materials release a wide range of hazardous chemicals. Breathing those chemicals over a lifetime may increase the likelihood of asthma, at best, and cancer at worst. I hope that the “first world technologies” can develop products with fewer hazardous substances or increase the profitability from recycling and/or re-use. Thanks for your great reportmap110571@aol.coming! mike

    1. People who live in places where everyone burns their own trash also often cook over a wood fire with little to no ventilation, so they certainly experience myriad negative health affects. Even landfills are not without their hazards; one burst into flames in March in Panama, and the ash/smoke blew all the way to Panama City and made it noticeably harder to breathe outside. Since the two ways to avoid negative health affects of burning trash are to have people not burn it, or use less toxic ingredients in the stuff that’s getting burned, I absolutely agree that using all technology available to develop products with fewer hazardous chemicals is the avenue to pursue. Because the reality is that people will keep burning it, because that’s all they can do.

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