Waste Systems & Recycling

Constructively Reducing Your Waste

Garden gnome in Nicaragua

Inspired by our experience volunteering on a farm in Ometepe Island in Nicaragua, my wife Emma and I became very excited about the prospect of reducing our personal waste. Totoco Farm and Totoco Eco-Lodge are both 100% waste-free zones, meaning every consumable that enters either stays or is recycled. What makes this achievement even more remarkable is that, in Nicaragua, recycling is basically nonexistent. So how does one go about reducing their waste to nada?

Organic matter

This one is easy and, if you are gardening, you already know the merits of composting. Via permaculture, we’ve learned many new methods, such as worm bins — they eat the kitchen waste and create super fertile soil — and hugelkultur. Food scraps also work well for feeding animals, which later comes out in an already super fertile form. Frankly, it’s not a great stretch to use up all organic material productively, and that also includes cardboard and paper products.

At Totoco Farm, food scraps, save a few — like citrus, onions, garlic, pineapple, etc. — also went to feeding the resident pigs. What the pigs didn’t or couldn’t eat went into a cold compost heap for eventual use in the gardens.

Pig compost


Metal is perhaps the most recyclable of all materials. Just about every country recycles it. However, even better and more energy efficient is finding alternative uses for old soda cans and bean tins, and there is always some use to be found for metal sheeting, buckets, and wire. However, the ideal here is to limit the use of disposable metal containers, thereby reducing the need to do something with them. In general, that means cooking beans from scratch, buying/growing fresh vegetables, and getting your beer in reusable bottles.

At Totoco, cans were few and far between, but when the collection did grow large enough, a local guy who made a living recycling came through to get them. To my knowledge, it was the one thing that actually did make it back off the farm.


Plastic, especially filmy wrappers, have been the biggest obstacle for us since declaring our own personal war on waste. We don’t have a garden producing all our beans, grains, and so on yet, so we tend to buy them in the supermarket. This produces a lot of plastic trash. While bottles are readily reusable — containers, plant starters, and the ubiquitous pencil holder — those plastic wrappers are tough to deal with. But, we’ve decided to kill two birds with one stone and use a construction method we learned from an NGO called Hug It Forward in Guatemala, making eco-bricks by stuffing plastic bottles with plastic wrappers. (Hug It Forward uses them to build schools in rural villages.) We’ve also learned that clean, shredded plastic makes a dandy stuffing for cushions and such.

At Totoco, the modus operandi was to use plastic bottles sandwiched between chicken wire for partition walls, such as around an outdoor “Japanese” shower and trash bins holding plastic bottles waiting for use. Plastic wrappers were for the most part stored, awaiting a use or solution. When building, they also used them as a filler in the concrete foundations.

Bottle bed


In most of Latin America, beer bottles, which comprise most of our glass refuge, are reused rather than recycled, so that’s a no-brainer. Beyond that, glass bottles are an extremely useful eco-building material, perfect for allowing outside light through walls or ceilings. They can create nice looking borders for raised beds. They can be self-regulating watering systems for plants. They can be stacked between two posts to make a beautiful wall or bottleneck trellis for vines grow up. Glass bottles, no problem –we could reuse more than we ever produce. Jars… the same thing.

At Totoco, they made it into some of the walls for a little added light, but more or less, they were horded awaiting a use. During our volunteer stint, we use them to make several garden bed borders. It really adds something funky and stylish.

Other waste

That takes care of the typical garbage. Other interesting things we are addressing are grey water from the showers and kitchen sink and human waste. By making our own soaps, shampoos, toothpastes, deodorants, cleaning sprays, detergents and so on from all natural products — basically baking soda and vinegar with some essential oils — we can use our water in the garden and greenhouse without fouling up our food. It saves us a tremendous amount of money, as well as prevents buying more disposable bottles of stuff, producing more waste.

The toilet situation is as easy as a ‘thunderbox’, i.e. a dry compost toileta little raised house with two chambers below it and a hole in the floor over each one, where you throw some sawdust or straw in after business is done. You fill up one chamber, then close it off and switch to the other. By the time the second side is full, the first will be some wickedly powerful fertilizer for trees. Plus, flush toilets are a tremendous waste of resources which produce nothing.

A ‘thunderbox’ at Totoco, Nicaragua

Unfortunately for us, at our current location, care-taking a property in Panama, a thunderbox is not possible, so we’ve instead chosen to compost our toilet tissue, which has to be thrown in a wastebasket anyway. Then, when it’s yellow, we either let it mellow or do our business in bushes, so that’s where we stand on the water and human waste issue.

At Totoco, we had the good fortune of being present when it was time to empty one of the thunderbox chambers. It provided some very serious laughter, but to our pleasant surprise, the odor was neutralized, the sawdust having absorbed all the moisture.

But, let’s not forget, the easiest way to reduce waste is to simply use less disposable items. Get out of the habit of accepting plastic bags or having stuff ‘to go’. Buy things used when possible. Borrow or rent when you don’t need to buy. Grow when you can and eat mostly what you grow. Make your own, make your own, make your own. It’s an easy thing to put off, and an even easier thing to really get into when you start.

Here’s the challenge: How long can we — you — last without rolling out the trash can or visiting the landfill? Make a start!

Jonathon Engels

The financially unfortunate combination of travel enthusiast, freelance writer, and vegan gardener, Jonathon Engels whittled and whistled himself into a life that gives him cause to continually scribble about it. He has lived as an expat for over a decade, worked in nearly a dozen countries, and visited dozens of others in the meantime, subjecting the planet to a fiery mix of permaculture, music, and plant-based cooking. More of his work can be found at Jonathon Engels: A Life About.


    1. Cardboard also makes an excellent biodegradable liner to put under garden beds. It helps to ward off weeds for a while, attracts worms, and provides some compost for plants.

  1. We (2 adults) can last 1 year (120 l trash can), but we have the advantage of living in a very recycling-friendly country (Germany). Basically, only femine hygiene products, soup bones, and the occasional bit of concrete or bottle cap I pull out of the ground when gardening are not either recycleable, or returnable (batteries, CFLs, medicaments), compostable or repairable. And while dry toilets are illegal here, I too composte my yellow paper.

    Can’t do the “let it mellow” part, though. We did that out of necessity for a while (broken water pump / problem with the flushing tank) and that resulted in a completely clogged sewage pipe. It was so bad we had to remove several meters of it because there was just no getting through even with pressured water. Apparently the pipes are not designed for extreme water conserving measures, at least not in older houses. The sewage systems of some larger European cities actually have to be blasted with large amounts of fresh water from time to time because they get clogged when people are sending too little liquids through compared to the solids. (Something to do with the slopes and circumfences of the old pipes and tunnels.) In the nearest city where I live, situated in a river basin, people’s water conservation efforts (together with some heavy industry closures a couple of decades ago) have also led to the effect that the watertable has risen so much due to lack of municipal pumping that some cellars and fundaments of old buildings are in danger. So, do consider the situation your infrastructure was built on.

    1. Hi Vivi,
      Congrats on a job well done with waste reduction. The place we’ve inherited has quite a lot of old concrete that I’ve been working on using somehow. I’ve border beds with some of the larger chunks, and I’ve broken some up to use as gravel. Anyway, it’s great to know you’d already taken on the challenge, and thanks for the odd information about water systems.
      Best of luck.

  2. Our last day of garbage pickup is this week. We have reduced our weekly garbage to basically nothing. This ‘vacation’ from garbage pickup will force us to finish off the rest, to actual zero-waste. We basically only have dental floss and some frozen food plastics (vegetables and meat). We purchase food in bulk, use reusable containers at the store and make/grow our own food. It is summer here, so we are gardening, foraging and canning/freezing.

    1. Hi there Shannon,
      Great to here about your no-waste ways. We’ve managed to wash our plastic bags, cutting them up as we go. My wife made a nice outside pillow out of our first bunch. (Used dental floss might be a bit gross for this, though). But, the pillow is pretty nice, kind of like memory foam. Anyway, I love knowing you (and many others) are out there doing something. Feels like we’ve got some good company.

  3. Hi Jonathon. Great to see your good work in reducing waste. I live in a remote place and have no garbage pickup or most other services that people expect. It is a fun challenge! All organic matter ends up in the soil via either dogs, chickens or worm farm (which processes the humanure too). All glass and metals are transported to the recycling depot once every couple of months – where they are not reused here in one form or another. Plastic is the real problem, so it is great to read some tips about how to deal with this stuff. I mostly try to limit bringing any plastic at all back to the farm here in the first place. Top work and it is inspiring to hear about your efforts.

  4. Beware plastic will eventually break down due to the elements (wind, water, uv rays) and get into your soil and water.

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