Moment of Change

Growing up I never thought much about the waste that I produced. And it was an even longer time before I came to see waste as an ethical issue. Everyone knows the basics of not being wasteful even as children. Just think of all the many ways that parents prompt their children (eat all your food, turn off the water when you brush your teeth, don’t take too much toilet paper, turn off the lights when you aren’t using them, only take what you are going to eat etc.). I too learned all these things as a kid. However, it was a much longer time before I developed a deeper understanding of what it means to be wasteful and the ethical implications associated with wastefulness. Even today my understanding and definition of wastefulness and its role that it plays in society is changing.

There are many experiences that led to my developing consciousness related to the ethics of waste. The big wake up call for me, however, was in my junior year of college during my study abroad program in Santiago, the Dominican Republic. I decided to go into a special program called Service Learning, a program dedicated to teaching students through hands on experiences, complete immersion, and internships. I ended up working with an after-school program for underprivileged students in Cienfuegos, the worst neighborhood on the outskirts of Santiago. The community of Cienfuegos is located right next to Rafey, the local landfill and dumping ground for all of Santiago’s trash. In some ways I will never be able to articulate what it is like to be in a Trash Mountain Community. Throughout my internship this is a term that was used to describe communities like Cienfuegos. Communities who are deeply affected by and dependent upon the landfills that override the same spaces that they live, work, and die in.  It is overwhelming to see first-hand the sheer enormity of the difficulties that these sorts of communities face.

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Rafey, the local landfill. Other than trash and people there is also a surprising amount of cows in the landfill who are brought up by farmers to graze off from the plant material and kitchen waste amongst the waste.

It was in those months walking between the trash strewn streets and poverty stricken families that the ethics of trash and our disposal of it really became real to me. Everyday there were people that I worked with whose lives were affected on every level by their proximity to Rafey. After a while I think that I even came to normalize the waste and the issues that the community faced because it was the only way to be able to do what good I could while I was there instead of getting bogged down by everything else that I knew I couldn’t change. And despite everything that I dealt with on a daily basis, I had an amazing study abroad experience. Coming home was even harder than I thought it would be. After the glow of having been abroad faded, I was left with reverse culture shock and the normalization that I had developed in the Dominican completely disappeared as I came back to the clean, unaffected streets of Massachusetts. I got locked in a deep sense of despair over the fact that other people didn’t get how profoundly my experiences had changed me. The faces of the people I worked with every day would parade across my mind, their voices whispering in my ear every time I threw something away, every time I saw something that I knew they wouldn’t have taken for granted. It truly began to bother me to realize how many things that we do daily that directly affect someone else negatively. But it bothered me even more to realize that as a society we have been conditioned so thoroughly that we rarely stop to think twice about doing these things.

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Workers in Rafey collecting recyclables in big bags in order to exchange them for money. The going rate for two glass bottles was RD$1 (peso) the equivalent of 7¢ in the U.S.

  So right here, right now this is me stopping, thinking twice, and rewriting to script.

Those months in the Dominican and the following months after coming home I have never felt so helpless in my whole life. There were little boys and girls I was working with in the afterschool program that were literally living and dying in trash. Children who couldn’t even write their own names because the only way they could get food was by picking recyclables out of the landfill instead of being in school. Children who were (and still are) stuck in a community and system wide cycle of poverty so profound that there seems to be very little hope of ever breaking it. Coming back from the Dominican I felt like I should be doing something with all that I had learned. All the things that I had seen literally seem to haunt me since everything reminded me of my experiences there. I have also never felt so guilty about where I was born before-no matter how hard I tried to forget it.

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The day before I went to the landfill an armed fight broke out because the company paying for the trash collected by the workers wanted to lower the going rates for the recyclables, angering many. The armed military men picture here were there to “keep the peace” amongst them all while workers tear into a new load of trash in the background.

However, everything changed the day that I randomly stumbled across an article on Facebook about a girl who had only produced a jar full of trash in over a year. In the article the term the “zero waste movement” popped up and sure enough just a couple of hours and many internet searches later I was well on my way to being completely hooked on the idea. Although it took me many months to really start implementing changes in my own life I have come to be in a place where I am finally living in a way that is more ethically aligned with my beliefs; beliefs created by my experiences.

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A young man carried his load of recyclables away from Rafey in order to exchange what he collected for money. These heavy bags used to be hauled by children much younger before the after-school program I interned with put a stop to a large majority of the child labor issues within Rafey.

Many people think I’m crazy and many more people think that I’m a tree hugging hippie. I get why they think that because once upon a time I would have thought that too. I’ve had to learn how to forgive people who think that because I know now that they just don’t get it. And they might never understand it. But let me state this: living your beliefs and being ethically/morally concerned for the well-being of others and the place that we all call home doesn’t make you a hippie-it just makes you a person who is trying to do the right thing precisely because it is the right thing to do. No one lives in a vacuum; therefore, everything that we do has an affect on others around us. For me that is the beautiful part of life. We are all connected one way or another. And I believe that through that connection we are all responsible for one another. Discovering the zero waste movement has allowed me to go from being helpless to being empowered. But even better than that, it has allowed me to realize that no matter how small a step we take, we collectively can do our part to make a big difference in fixing this mess that we collectively have made.

 

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To get  a better sense of how big these bags of recyclables are look really closely at the man on the right side of the truck. The bags are at least as high as he is and could probably fit several grown people easily when they are empty.

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Here is one of the main entrances from Cienfuegos leading into Rafey. You can see a lot of liquids that have leeched out of the landfill to create or contaminate this “stream”. Although it may be hard to tell from this picture Rafey was 15 capas or layers high when I went to see it in 2014. It may be higher now.

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Again it is hard to get a sense of just how big Rafey is without going to see it for yourself but just take my word for when I say that it is absolutely enormous! This shot is just of one side of the landfill. I could turn in all directions and see practically the same view any way that I turned almost as far as the eye can see. I was not able to explore even a fourth of the landfill.

Photo Credits go to Mercedes Munoz. This wonderful lady also deserves a round of applause for all the hard work she is doing to make a difference with her Service Learning Students in Santiago!

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