6 ways joining Peace Corps helped me become more eco-friendly

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Scallion, thyme and pak choy growing on our back step

Never did I imagine that joining the Peace Corps in Jamaica would help me learn to reduce my carbon footprint and live a more environmentally friendly lifestyle. Spoiler alert: it totally did.

Californians are a very proud people. We (ok, I) gladly embrace hippy-earth-concious-innovator-free spirit stereotype and are often audacious enough to claim that California is the greatest place on earth.

Americans produce more municipal solid waste than any other nation in the world (about 4.3 pounds per person per day). In Jamaica that number is lower at 2.2 pounds per person per day, which frankly is still not great.

The average American family uses about 400 gallons of water per day, the bulk of which is used to flush the toilet. The average Jamaican household uses between 3,000 and 5,000 gallons of treated water in a month, a level which is considered unsustainable, but still less than half of American household use.

In spite of these bleak figures, intervention on the individual level does hold power. I like to think of it as a ripple effect. In Jamaica, there are moves being made to increase sustainability and improve public knowledge of environmental conservation techniques. Peace Corps’ Green Initiative project in Jamaica seeks to promote sustainable natural resource management. Check out the recently-launched Nuh Dutty Up Jamaica Campaign as well as the Clean Coasts Project, both of which aim to cut down on litter.


1. Morning routine

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My community shares a water source with several surrounding communities. As a result, our water is only typically turned on for 3 days out of the week.

Jamaicans employ a number of different water storage techniques, from rainwater catchment to rooftop tanks to shipping barrels. While my host family does have a rooftop tank to supply us with water for the rest of the week, the pressure is not great enough for me to take a real shower, and in any case running out of water is a very real possibility (yes, it’s happened before).

In true Peace Corps fashion I start off my days with a bucket bath, generally consisting of 1.5 gallons of water versus the typical 17.2 gallons the average American uses for an 8-minute shower.

California—take note. You’re in the middle of an historic drought.


 

2. Doing the wash

My host mom's laundry out to dry
My host mom’s laundry out to dry

Before deciding to put anything into my hamper, I ask myself “is this really dirty?” If it doesn’t stink (and sometimes even if it does…), you best believe I’m hanging that yaad dress right back up in my closet until its had at least three wears.

Electricity, water and appliances are exponentially more expensive here. Most Jamaicans do their wash by hand. I’m lucky enough to have a manual washing machine in my house, but on more than one occasion I’ve had to carry buckets of water up the stairs from the yaad to fill it up. Carrying your water really makes you think before you use.

We dry our clothes on a line in the yard, which can sometimes take up to three days considering the fickle nature of the rain clouds. I sometimes gossip with fellow volunteers about returned resident so-and-so who has a real dryer in their house. There aren’t many in the country.


3. Using found objects

IMG_2151In the Golden State, we are taught from a young age to reduce, reuse recycle. Admittedly, I’d never gone much further than teaching my roommates about what you can and can’t put in the blue bin.

Recycling is a fairly new concept in Jamaica, meaning the infrastructure is not in place for much of the country (though my local high school at site does have an innovative recycling program!). Garbage collection in general is irregular, leading many Jamaicans to burn their garbage. Can you imagine having to store a month’s worth of household garbage while trying to stave off rodents and cockroaches?

Following suit with my host family and counterparts, I’ve embraced and incorporated “garbage” into my job. I now look at a single use plastic bottle through a new lens. Instead of waste, I see a sorting cup or rhythm stick to use in my classroom; I see a hanging planter box to make with the 4H club; I see a building block that could transform garbage into an eco-bench.


4. Commuting

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Wherever I’m going, if it’s a reasonable distance and is a safe road, I try to walk. Walking helps me to slow down and see more things and people than I would in a car or on a bike. I’m lucky to have a quick, five-minute walk as my daily commute to work, and on the way there I say wa gwaan, w’aapin or mawnin to at least thirty different people before I get to school.

California is a big driving state, and while public transportation is on the up-and up, there’s always much talk about traffic reduction, carpooling, smog and hybrid cars.

Peace Corps volunteers are not permitted to drive or own a car in-country, so to travel farther distances we’ve got to “small up” in a taxi. In order to make the trip more cost-effective, drivers will cram as many people as they can possibly hold into their cars. If there were such a thing as a carpool lane in Jamrock, it would be rare for a car to not be in it.


5. Cutting down on food miles

Locally grown veg, prepping a lovely curry dinner
Locally grown veg, prepping a lovely curry dinner

In California, I tried to buy locally whenever my options and wallet would allow. In Jamaica, I buy eggs from my friend Stacey’s host brother; I’ve had rastas sell me pumpkin from their farm at my doorstep; I buy chicken from the lady down the road who sells to my host mom; I look for the “proudly manufactured in Jamaica” label on my Busta candies.

More often than not, my food does not come from more than a few miles away from where I live. I love that I know the story behind so many of the things I’m eating.

As a plus, I’ve learned that some of my favorite spices like pimento (allspice), nutmeg, turmeric and ginger are grown right here in Jamdown!


6. “Eat what you grow, grow what you eat!”

Container gardens are a great way to maximize small spaces
Container gardens are a great way to maximize small spaces

Most of the people in my community practice subsistence farming in some capacity. I’ve seen all kinds of container gardens, from repurposed tires to old water jugs. My host mom is growing at least ten different foods at any given time, and don’t even get me started on her orchid varietals…

It’s amazing how much practical knowledge Jamaicans have about gardening and farming. A volunteer couple once visited my house with their host mom, who left with clippings from some of di bush inna mi yaad that she intended to grow in her own yard.

This passed down knowledge of budding and cultivation blows me away. I intend to return to California with some farm-at-home knowledge. Yes, overalls would be a great homecoming gift, folks!


*To my mother’s credit: I remember having a clothesline in our backyard, having to bring my ziplock lunch bags home so that she could wash them for re-use (and feeling very embarrassed about it for some reason), and the excitement on her face when she reaped broccoli from her organic backyard garden.

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derp.

We grew up without much money, so perhaps I mistook our earth-friendly practices for things poor people have to do to make ends meet. Maybe this explains why so many developed countries have developed such wasteful practices—we try to distance ourselves from work as we move toward convenience. Sorry mom! By holding onto some of those things you learned growing up, you were an innovator ahead of your time.

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