Reduce, Reuse, Recycle

An essay about changes in attitude regarding reusing and recycling materials in Romania.

By Nina Porzucki - Peace Corps Volunteer, Romania (2002 - 2004)

Romania has turned me into a pack rat. Not that I didn't collect things in the past. Once I cried for three hours when my father made me throw away a childhood collection of wrapping paper and bows that filled up my closet. Living in Romania has reawakened this pack rat impulse inside me. Here, every food item I buy is not judged by its caloric content or nutritional value, but by its Tupperware potential. My eyes glisten at the thought of empty water bottles lying useless in the trash. My heart skips a beat when I mistakenly get an extra plastic bag at the market. Every container is useful in ways that I had never envisioned. Juice bottles make perfect milk containers when you buy milk in a bag. Three-liter bottles are great jugs. An empty yogurt cup makes an excellent glass, tomato-sauce jars make great mugs, and sour cream "buckets" are quite the prize because they come complete with lids perfect for leftovers. Everything has a use and nothing is wasted.

Romanians are extremely resourceful. As my friend Mirela says, "We have to be." When you make an average of a hundred dollars a month, you learn to stretch your money till the last leu. (The leu is the official Romanian currency.) Before the fall of the Iron Curtain and the onslaught of capitalism and creative packaging, Romanian recycling was not a mere choice but a necessity. Who knew when and what the shortages would be? Survival meant collecting. A roll of toilet paper was worth its weight in gold when none was to be found for months in the market. Plastic bags, foodstuffs, jars, buttons, thread, material—everything was useful when nothing else was available. Recycling thus evolved as a necessity, not a choice. Plastic bags still remain golden items; they cost extra at the grocery stores.

Though informal, or personal, recycling is integral to the Romanian lifestyle today, organized recycling has only recently come back into vogue. For years, recycling was anything but voluntary. Under the regime of Ceausescu—the former communist dictator who ran the country from the mid '60s till Romania's revolution in 1989—recycling was mandatory. Children were required to bring a quota of paper from home to school to be recycled. Forced recycling left a bad taste in the mouths of many Romanians. So bitter was this taste that after the fall of communism, not recycling became an act of asserting one's freedom. It is hard to fathom just how controlling the state of communism must have been, when freedom boiled down to the right to do what you wished with your own trash.

The question is, how do you disassociate memories of a formerly oppressive act—recycling by decree—from the importance of the act itself? How do you get people to recycle of their own volition, not because they have to, but because it's the right thing to do? The answer is kids!

Since being here, I have thought a lot more about the things that I throw away. In fact, my trash haunts me. I dream about the mountain of waste that I have nonchalantly tossed: plastic bottles, glass jars, soda cans, paper towels, foam plates, mounds and mounds of formerly useful things sitting stagnant in the ground, waiting uncounted years to decompose. I feel sick.

I discussed my guilty conscience with my students. They too confessed to feeling guilty about the amount of paper that lay wasting in school trash cans failing to be recycled. We talked and talked and finally decided to do something about our garbage guilt together. We formed a coalition called the Green Marshals and initiated a recycling competition between classes. The Green Marshals' leader, Mihaela, made contact with a company outside of town that offered to pay us for the paper. We gave each class a cardboard recycling box that we salvaged from market garbage bins.

Thus the project began, and it was a big hit. The winning class recycled over a hundred kilos [220 pounds] of paper in under two months, but more important, we got people to think about what they were throwing away. The kids were pleased, and together we hope to continue the good recycling karma this school year. "The best thing," Mihaela explained, "is changing the way people think." Romania has definitely changed the way I think about trash. Truly I have learned that one person's trash may be another person's treasure. 

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