Living in a Place that's not so Zero Waste

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The Place

As many of you know, I am a biologist, and this summer I've had the absolute PLEASURE of moving to St. Croix in the US Virgin Islands for three months to work on a turtle conservation project. That means I get to hang out with nesting mama turtles all night long!

I could regal you with tales of turtles, running after them (yes running) into the ocean to get a tag read, getting smacked with sand in the face by their powerful flippers, helping them dig nest chambers when they had injuries, watching eggs drop, and all sorts of other craziness; but what I want to chat about today is what it's like living in a place that is not very zero waste friendly.

The Problems

Infrastructure : there is only one recycling center on the island, the Boys & Girls Club Recycling Center, but unfortunately at this point it only accepts metal cans, no plastic. So any plastic used on-island goes to the dump.

This isn't necessarily because people don't want recycling on the island, it's that a recycling facility here probably wouldn't turn out tons of profits, so private companies aren't necessarily interested in setting up shop here. Unfortunately, this is simply the reality of the situation until either a company comes in, or the dedicated people of the US Virgin Islands come up with another solution.

Culture : without infrastructure to allow for recycling, waste easily becomes very common place.  While I know there are many people on-island who care deeply for the environment, there is also a very prevalent attitude that since nothing can be done, there's no need in trying; or just plain ignorance to the drastic effect that personal trash can have.

Just last night, while patrolling Buck Island, we saw a group of people who had been barbecuing and having a picnic. Perfectly wonderful way to spend time on our public lands! But, when my coworker and I returned to the area on patrol for turtles, the group had left ALL of their trash hanging from trees and laying on the beach. These were locals, not tourists. This was so incredibly inconsiderate and disrespectful, both to us and to the gorgeous island that we all need to be working to protect!

Three full bags of trash left on the beach of Buck Island National Monument by visitors.

Three full bags of trash left on the beach of Buck Island National Monument by visitors.

My Situation

My position here is one where I get paid a small stipend per week and am put up in a hotel with room and board taken care of. And the hotel we are staying in is absolutely GORGEOUS, it's straight out of a magazine, I swear.

This has put me in a position I haven't been in since I was a freshman in college: I can't shop for food or cook for myself.

So, with no recycling on island, and the inability to shop for my own food, I've loose a lot of freedom when it comes to choosing what I eat.

As you may know if you've made an attempt at a zero waste lifestyle, careful grocery shopping and cooking are sort of the rudiments of going zero waste.

The hotel restaurants that supply our food do use biodegradable straws, which is great b/c my "no straw, please" request is almost never successful. However, at least once a week we have to order food to go because we are working special events or odd schedules, and the restaurant that supplies our food won't put it in my to-go containers. They also often put sides in styrofoam (agh!) cups.

Though I've made a habit of rinsing and keeping most of these items so I can recycle them when I come back home, that's sort of a cheat. People who live here do not have the option to stash stuff until they get back to the mainland.

So, what to do?

Luckily, I was pretty prepared with zero waste toiletries and laundry supplies. But the waste associated with the food here is something I wasn't really prepared for and haven't figured out an excellent solution for. I can't skip meals for the sake of being zero waste, because health does have to come first. I do my best to avoid disposables as much as possible, but I've also had to learn to accept that I'm just not going to be as successful here as I am at home.

This is a time where I've really had to take a deep breath and remind myself that this process isn't about being perfect, or succeeding all the time. It's about trying to choose and act better. I was spoiled living in a place with an excellent recycling program, bulk stores, and the ability to shop and cook for myself. Without these luxuries, it's easy to see how quickly things can fall apart.