At home I take for granted that my garbage moves through a well-planned system of collection, treatment and disposal, or recycling. It disappears from my curb and I rarely give it another thought, especially the oversized blue recycling bin that swallows the majority of our waste because my county recycles virtually every type of plastic, glass, metal and paper product. I assume it’s all carried away, processed locally and then sent off to be turned into new products.
But in Haiti, where I’ve traveled twice in the past year, initially as part of Off the Mat, Into the World’s Global Seva Challenge project, I approach every single plastic water bottle with a sense of disdain. The streets are lined with thousands of these bottles, empty containers and wrappers, scraps of clothing, mismatched shoes and the remnants of lives discarded. There’s nowhere for it to go on this tiny, rugged island, but into another pile.
And seeing garbage piled up everywhere I look breaks my heart.
The children I have met on my trips play amidst the garbage, sometimes barefoot or in tattered sandals that spill off into the waste. Women sit behind curbside market stalls, surrounded by rotting food and containers that represent life lived without the stability of reusable wares.
I am a visitor here, transitory and simply observing. It’s hard not to judge but then step back and really see people who are doing the best they can, truly living in the present moment because it’s all they have, survival as the sole focus.
On our most recent trip in December, exploring the historic sites of Haiti’s north coast, we were horrified to see a colonial-era fort near Cap Haitien—a site that holds the power of the only successful slave rebellion in history—also swallowed in garbage. To get to the fort, we walked a once-sandy beach trail that had become a carpet of bottles and cans and discarded bits of everyday life.
But this trail, and Haiti’s streets, are in fact lined with hope. Perpetually recovering from centuries of unrest, disaster and poor governance, the effects of the massive 2010 earthquake still felt daily, Haiti presents in its moment of transition an opportunity for a more sustainable approach.
Executives Without Borders and Haiti Recycling are partnering in a program called Ramase Lajan, which literally means “picking up money.” With the support of donors and organizations around the world, Ramase Lajan is establishing community-based recycling centers around Haiti. The model is one of sustainable development—a local Haitian is selected to manage the center, trained and given the funds to train and hire others. Everyone in the local community can get involved, collecting bottles and cans and selling them to the center as a means of income. The center then transports and sells the recyclables to Haiti Recycling, in Port-au-Prince, where they processed to be shipped abroad for recycling and for use in new products.
We visited a new recycling center in Haut-Du-Cap, near Cap Haitien, the first center in the north of the country. We met the Haitian manager (called the “proprietor”), Purnell. He is young and so proud of his business. Purnell and his team are now working to educate the local people, for whom the concept of the recycling center model is new, to engage them in picking up recyclable waste in the area.
As this program grows, the goal is to build a processing plant in Haiti, employing Haitians to turn garbage into gold—or at least, to turn plastic bottles into useful products like shoes, bags and other plastic goods, that can in turn be sold for Haitians or as souvenirs. And in the process, build up communities and individual leaders who represent the promise of sustainable economic development and a cleaner environment for this struggling nation. The magic of this place is its people, who are so passionate about their land and their heritage, yet often are left powerless to preserve it in the face of so much hardship.
Along with several of my friends and fellow travelers, I will be raising money to build a new recycling center in Jacmel, on Haiti’s southern coast. Each center is funded by donations for the materials, training and hiring of employees and initial start-up costs, totaling $25,000. To purchase handmade Reclaimed Hearts for Haiti jewelry that supports this project, visit http://www.etsy.com/shop/tohaitiwithlove. Make a donation or learn more about how you can support the Jacmel recycling center at www.experiencethevillage.com/recyclehaiti.