I’d spent my life thoughtlessly throwing trash in a garbage can, knowing trash services came to my house regularly to carry away what I didn’t want. Sure, I learned in school about landfills and recycling and I thought I was a green person. But I’d never seen my personal trash accumulate; it was just taken away, never to be seen again. I assumed it would always be this way. Then I moved to Paraguay.
For two years I lived as a volunteer in the South American country. Paraguay doesn't have government-regulated garbage pickup, or septic systems that can handle toilet paper. What to do? At first, I simply bagged my banana peels, empty juice boxes, and other secret garbage that I'd never given a second thought to in the United States, and tossed it all in the trash cans at the center of town. I assumed the government would be along shortly to empty them. The garbage trucks never came.
It didn’t take long for me to realize that disposing of my garbage in Paraguay wasn’t really disposing of it at all. I noticed an American brand can of Pringles rolling down the street, the same flavor I'd bought the week before. Then some school papers with my name on them. Then—the horror—a used tampon wrapped in toilet paper. For Paraguayans, litter is a bigger problem than excessive garbage accumulation. Candy wrappers are a regular occurrence in the street. The trash is tossed in cans loose, rarely bagged, and tends to scatter through the street as people sort through it looking for treasures.
While I scrambled around picking up my waste, I realized that garbage in Paraguay was going to be my responsibility. My trash was no longer anonymous. There’s a lesson the Western world could learn from a garbage system like Paraguay’s—that is, no system at all, only personal responsibility.
I started with toilet paper, out of necessity. A pile of used toilet paper in the 90-degree heat is not a pleasant thing. Flushing it wasn’t an option. Instead, I bought a tin bucket, punctured holes in the bottom of it for better air circulation, and a few times every week I’d march the bucket out to a field and throw a lit match directly on top of the paper. I had to experiment with adding dry newspaper on damp days for faster burning. I even learned to enjoy standing over a bucket of flaming toilet paper, occasionally stirring it with a stick to allow air to circulate, while being cautious not to inhale the smoke. Afterward, I’d dump the small pile of gray ashes down an abandoned latrine.
Food scraps were another problem that was easily solved. I never have much in terms of leftovers, but there were often banana peels, egg shells, and wet yerba mate (Paraguay’s national drink) that needed disposing of. Paraguayans would usually throw these scraps to their chickens or pigs, but the only livestock I had was a pet dog. Instead, I built a small compost pile out of scrap wood. My compost pile became an obsession: I tended to it almost daily, scooping cow manure onto it, checking for the correct heat, and eventually peeing on it (for the nitrogen) when (I hoped) nobody was watching. Eventually, I was rewarded with rich humus for my garden.
Cardboard, magazines, and plastic could easily be burned, but I worried about the negative effect that would have on the environment. I tried to repurpose those materials into projects for local schools, making bingo cards out of cereal boxes. Magazines were either re-gifted or used to make recycled paper. Sometimes, though, I had to burn other kinds of trash with the toilet paper. I eventually figured out the best way to deal with excess packaging was not to buy the stuff in the first place. I bought food in bulk, or skipped certain items altogether. When I shopped, I didn’t just look at the item I wanted, I also looked at what I’d be stuck with after I finished the goods. I gave up Pringles.
For the most part garbage in Paraguay stays at bay because much of what’s bought there isn’t disposable. Even diapers are a luxury item; most babies wear cloth. It’s not perfect: Sometimes trash is buried or taken to a local dump, which could contaminate Paraguay’s pristine water aquifer, one of the biggest in the world.
Wine bottles remained a bit of a problem. I could only go so far in my no waste zealousness; I wasn’t about to stop drinking cabernet. First, I buried the bottles neck-first into the ground around the perimeter of my garden, which helped prevent weeds and made for better irrigation. After I finished that project, I used an awesome trick I'd learned, cutting wine bottles into drinking glasses using bicycle wire, patience, and caution.
There were still items I didn’t know what to do with, like empty contact lens solution bottles. Luckily, neighborhood kids fought over them. I think they liked the English packaging and the exoticism of contacts in general. I saw one kid fill an old bottle with water and use it to squirt his sister.
Eventually, I became less obsessed with my trash. I found a good system that worked for me and didn’t overly harm the environment. Of course, burning and burying trash can cause damage. There’s no real way around it: The more stuff we produce and buy, the more trash becomes a problem—more and more so as third world countries develop and become Westernized. Hopefully, though, more people will realize that their trash isn’t anonymous and start to come up with creative solutions to fix the problem.
Now I live in New York, where the recycling truck comes by once a week. I no longer have to burn my toilet paper, but I still focus on buying products without packaging. And I still collect food scraps in a bucket in my freezer and bring them to a local urban garden’s compost collection. If they need volunteers to urinate on the compost, I’m their girl.