I am constantly surprised, here in Latin America, at how little goes to waste compared to life at home. Prices seem cheap here, but a day’s wage doesn’t go very far, and so people consume exactly what they need and no more. Some people find it hard to adapt to the idea, but I appreciate the change in attitude to waste products.

One example is packaging. At home, when you buy eggs, they might come in a plastic or paper carton, with a full-colour printed label, destined for the trash. Here, eggs are bought by the flat, and when the eggs are gone, the paper flat is used as a seed starting tray, before being composted and returned to the earth. Individually wrapped convenience foods for snacking on the go are also much less common – more often, you’ll see men and women with baskets of fresh-cooked empanadas or steamed corn selling their wares to consumers in a hurry. Nobody seems worried about germs, or the bogeyman poisoning their food – people just buy their food and eat it. Maybe on a continent where the big issues include guerrillas and drug wars, perfectly sanitized and sealed food products are nobody’s top concern. No matter the reason, it’s refreshing to be able to buy a snack on the street without having to throw away three layers of plastic to get at it.

Almost nothing goes to waste on the farm, either. The groceries are bought and brought home in wooden boxes, which are used to store food in the kitchen. Broken ones are taken apart, split into pieces, and repurposed as labels for rows in the garden. When we finish a bottle of cooking oil, the plastic bottle can be used as a plant pot, a weight to hold down the greenhouse roof, or a container for screws, natural bug repellent, or kindling for the fire. Larger empty bottles, if they can’t be reused or exchanged for full ones, are split in half to use as animal feeders. Even little things, like pieces of wire or bent nails, are straightened and put aside for smaller uses. Jam jars, beer bottles, and animal feed bags are returned to the stores that sold them so none are wasted. The family even brings in extra glass jars to the local butter maker, so we don’t have unnecessary plastic containers.

Every activity I do, I’m pleasantly surprised at how little waste I can produce. I get up in the morning, and use the washroom. It’s a composting toilet, so the toilet paper, and its packaging and cardboard roll, all get composted. There is no sewage. The toothbrush, toothpaste, and soap came in plastic which is unfortunately thrown away, but most of the food for breakfast was bought in bulk and stored in reusable containers. The dishes are washed with a biodegradeable soap, which goes through the grey water system and doesn’t harm the plants or the earth. Our projects around the farm produce no waste at all – the cement bags are used as fire starter for the hot tub, and building materials are used repeatedly until they’ve rotted into the earth.

One of the hammocks breaks when I’m sitting in it – the goat has chewed a hole in the side and it tears when he jumps on me. The hammock is put in the free clothing bin, where it is promptly claimed for patches to repair people’s torn jeans and work shirts. People abandon their spare clothing here regularly, and new volunteers are constantly finding they need different clothes for work than they’d packed. Ellen and I have abandoned a few summer dresses and exchanged them for pants and long sleeved shirts. We’re tempted to leave our spare shoes behind as well – shoes are heavy to carry – because we know nothing here goes to waste. Someone will come along who needs an extra pair.

The destructive little culprit, sleeping in the hammock like he owns the place.

The destructive little culprit, sleeping in the hammock like he owns the place.

At home, I never thought much about garbage. I put something in a black plastic bag on the side of the street, and somebody takes it away. I never have to see it or think about it again. Here, things are much more visible. There’s no reason to put stuff in a landfill when it can be reborn as something useful. With little access to materials, you’d better make sure you don’t throw anything away that might come in handy later. Quite often when we go into town, the items we were looking for aren’t available, and won’t be brought in for several weeks. When that happens, we’re grateful for the things we saved to reuse later. It’s a lesson that we would do well to learn in North America as well. With too many resources at our fingertips, we value none of them. Here, where buying something to solve your problems is a luxury and a last resort, every last drop of use is squeezed out of every item we own. I hope I can remember that lesson when I leave Latin America, and pass it on to others.