Marriage is not just the union of two spouses, but also a merging of habits, values, and experiences. For the marriage to work, there has to be give and take, but ultimately the couple has to find a balance. In our marriage, one item was not negotiable: garbage.
Individually, we are pretty different. Jake is a “gringo,” environmentalist, and obsessed with trash (specifically food waste). Krystal is Dominican, a marketing expert, and although environmentally conscious, had never recycled at home. How to handle our trash became a defining conversation in our relationship.
Jake insisted on separating our waste. For Krystal, the project sounded like a recipe for cockroaches and a stink emanating from our recycling bin. But after considering the pros and cons, especially the environmental impact of solid waste, Krystal agreed to give it a try. In no time, sorting our garbage was as natural and easy as grocery shopping. It became part of our household routine, without pests or odors.
Garbage can be an intimidating and confusing subject. What materials can be recycled? How do we classify them? Where can they be disposed of? What about rats and other pests?
Given our experience, we decided it would be useful to explain our simple process and try to demystify the art of waste handling so others can adopt it in their own homes. Here are our guidelines.
Step one in proper waste management is trying not produce waste in the first place. As citizens, we have the right and the responsibility to reject materials we don’t need or demand better alternatives. Our first goal should always be to minimize the waste we produce. It takes much less effort to handle your garbage if there is less of it.
There are lots of good examples of refusing materials we don’t need. The most famous is to take your own reusable shopping bag to the supermarket and avoid those omnipresent disposable plastic bags. If you forget your reusable supermarket bag, don’t beat yourself up for taking a few plastic bags. You can use them later as liners in smaller trashcans at home.
Similarly, you can avoid buying plastic bottles or using disposable cups. Instead bring your own reusable cup. You can take this idea as far as you want or have time to. Some families choose to buy all their food in bulk at coops or fresh markets, refusing any packaging at all and bringing their own from home. In the Dominican Republic, there are beginning to be lot of options to buy fresh produce or staple products without needing any throw-away, single-use packaging. Check out Zero and Terra Verde, just to name a couple.
The point is not to become a waste fundamentalist. No one is perfect. Don’t let anyone trash-shame you. Waste success comes from consistency. Every family has to adopt the waste reduction philosophy that works for their home and lifestyle.
The next step is to properly sort waste at home. Most households generate three basic types of residues: organic, recyclable, and trash.
Organic waste consists of food scraps like eggshells, fruit peels, vegetable cuttings, and coffee grinds. Removing organic waste from your garbage is critical, since organics represent between 40% to 60% of the garbage in an average household. You can also consider paper towels, egg cartons, and newspaper organic waste since it will decompose in a compost bin (more on this in a minute).
Photo Jake Kheel
Organic waste is an important subject, thus Jake’s obsession. Organic waste that gets sent to a landfill produces a massive, negative environmental impact. It produces leachates, a harmful substance made up of decomposing liquids that can foul water bodies (rivers, streams, aquifers, lakes, even the sea) as well as be harmful to human health. That disgusting liquid trailing the trash truck is leachate. The rotting smell wafting out of a dump? Leachate.
Once deposited in a landfill, organic materials decompose and begin to produce methane gas, a powerful greenhouse gas that makes a heavy contribution to climate change. Landfill gas (LFG) is a natural by-product of the decomposition of organic material in landfills. LFG is made up of about 50 percent methane (the main component of natural gas), which is 25-35 times more effective at trapping heat in the atmosphere than CO2.
Methane has another downside. It is the most common cause of underground landfill fires. When you combine oxygen, increased surface temperatures and methane “hot spots,” you get fire. The smog enveloping Santo Domingo in May 2020 is caused by the smoldering fire at the dump outside of Santo Domingo. Methane is probably driving it. Landfill fires are not only toxic, but hard to put out.
Photo Moises Arias
In our house, we have a sealed metal container (about a gallon in volume) in our kitchen where we deposit organic residues throughout the course of the day. When the can is full, usually after a day or two, we take the organic wastee to the compost bin in the backyard.
Photo Jake Kheel
Composting is a process of transforming organic material to create a natural fertilizer. It sounds complicated, but it can be as simple or as complex as you want.
The compost bin we use is a commercial version known as a tumbler. Ours is almost twenty years old and made by a brand that no longer exists, but it looks something like this. It looks like a normal 50-gallon trash bin, but covered with a removable top at both ends. The tank sits on a metal base that allows it to be flipped over easily.
Photo Krystal Serret-Kheel
Making high quality compost requires turning or mixing the material periodically. The turning stirs up the organic waste, mixing oxygen and speeding up the breakdown of the material. Our tumbler makes it easy, no shovel or pitchfork required. However, there are many different of composting methods depending on how much space and time you have available. You can find dozens of DYI versions of different styles and sizes on youtube.
Next, we separate any recyclable materials at home. This includes plastics, glass, metal, and cardboard. In some places you can recycle tetrapack (the cardboard-like containers that juices and milk come in). There are a lot of different kinds of plastics, not all are recyclable. The same goes for glass. Presidente is recyclable, Corona might not be. You’ll have to do a little research to find out what is possible in your area.
We keep a plastic recycling bin in the kitchen. Our bin usually fills up after 7-10 days. Before throwing recyclables in the bin, we rinse them to remove any organic material, juices or leftovers (to avoid odors or pests). This might not be necessary if you can get rid of your recyclables more frequently.
Depending on where you live, there are different options to drop off your recyclables. In Santo Domingo, there are door-to-door programs such as Vecino Verde. It’s a loosely organized coalition of recyclers that will pick up certain materials from your tower or home. There are also permanent stations run by Green Love and NUVI located throughout the city. Do some googling of NUVI, RDVERDE, or Green Love and you can find them. At Puntacana Resort & Club, we have door to door recycling collected at home.
Photo Krystal Serret-Kheel
Finally (and unfortunately), the rest is trash. Inevitably there are products, containers and packaging that just can’t be composted or recycled. There are a few important points about pure trash. Remember to reject everything you don’t need or that can’t be reused or recycled. Next, put some pressure on companies that manufacture or use disposable or non-recyclable materials. Ask uncomfortable questions and push them to do better. Companies pay attention to their customers.
One last point. No house is perfect, including ours. We forget our reusable bags and buy products that can’t be recycled. Sometimes our compost gets overloaded and a little smelly. We make mistakes and produce garbage. We are not a “Zero Waste” household, although it’s our dream. Our main goal is to minimize our environmental footprint, starting with our family, but eventually extending it to our community and even to the workplace. You don’t need to be an environmentalist or expert, just get started and you’ll figure it out.