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  • Jenica

Why My Plastic Free July Failed: Basura Cero Parte 2

Plastic Free July is supposed to be a month raising awareness around plastic consumption and production and encouraging people to try new things to reduce their garbage output. As a zero waster, Plastic Free July has my name all over it. I have managed to keep my trash production under 1.0 ounce for the last 11 months which is a huge achievement. I haven't however been monitoring my recycling consistently and I know I have a decent amount of plastic that gets recycled. It is my goal to not only keep my trash down but to also reduce the quantity I have to recycle.

The trick with this Plastic Free July was that I was in Mexico. Actually, that was only a small challenge to cross. The biggest issue was that I was sick, for two weeks, and hospitalized for six of those days! So this post is going to be a lot of things: the story of my time in Mexico, a review of my monthly #ONEJARCHALLENGE trash production, and an analysis of how I could have done better during Plastic Free July. Be prepared for a long one :)

Plastic Free July Sign

Let's just start from the beginning.

On June 25th I flew to a small town called Melaque, Mexico. There I stayed with a host family and worked in a Special Education school as part of a volunteer program. The place was beautiful! The children were wonderful!

The beach located five blocks from my house.

Some of the children and me at the special education school.

I quickly ran into problems though. The real feel temperature was above 100 degrees every day. And at night, I was lucky if it got down to the 80's. My bedroom had no AC. I became dehydrated as I couldn't keep up on the liquids. And I wasn't sleeping.

My host family was extremely generous and moved rooms so I could stay in the only room in the house with AC. That next day however, I became sick - travelers’ diarrhea, stomach pain, body aches. The local clinic diagnosed me with a bacterial infection from contaminated food, put me on antibiotics, and gave me an IV for hydration.

The medicine didn't help (you'll see this becomes a trend) and the next day I was switched antibiotics. Those did help! Over the next week I recovered and went back to volunteering. My recovery however, required I take small probiotic bottles and drink excessive electrolytes. Given the small town and that I was sick, my host family brought back lots of plastic - bottles and bottles of it for me to use. I, of course, was just super thankful for all of their help!! I was collecting all of the recyclable plastic with the hope of bringing it back to the US.

While I was recovering, I discovered some interesting things about the people there (and their environmental awareness!). Here's a few I wanted to share:

1. Women wear clothes while swimming, not swimsuits. I felt naked in my bikini...

2. Plates at restaurants are wrapped in plastic that can be ripped off after the meal is over and thrown into the trash.

3. Almost every cup used is Styrofoam.

4. There is no local, official recycling system other than for aluminum cans.

5. The water is not drinkable so my host family would wash our fruits and vegetables in chlorine water before eating them.

6. An insecticide truck drives through town spraying it on all the houses during the day.

On July 10th, I developed my symptoms again...oh joy. I went in and this time they gave me antibiotics for parasites. Well...can you guess if they worked? Nope. Or at least, my symptoms got worse. Two days later I developed extreme stomach pain and couldn't eat. My stomach was also extremely bloated. That's when things got crazy...

The local clinic doctor was worried I had a twisted intestine or problems with my appendix so I was sent immediately to the hospital in the town over. The hospital was a mess really. No AC. No toilet paper. And once I was admitted, no call button or anyway for me to get help from doctors if I needed it. Long story short, it was miserable. But they ALMOST diagnosed me correctly so I have to give them credit for that.

The doctors guessed that I was overstimulated by all the antibiotics which were causing my stomach to get upset. They gave me quite a few pain killers and told me that it would soon pass. I was asked to stay overnight and agreed (even though the heat was killing me!). My family brought me some food at that point and then left for home since I was doing so well.

As you may have already guessed, my story does not end there. In the middle of the night after eating and once the pain killers had worn off, I was in excruciating pain again. The night doctors put me in an ambulance and shipped me off to another hospital that had a surgeon to make sure I didn't have appendicitis.

This second hospital at least had air conditioning! But after repeating the same tests I had already done twice that day, the doctor diagnosed me with a bacterial infection and irritated stomach. He prescribed more antibiotics and gave me some anti-acid medicine for the stomach. His basic message was, deal with the pain for a few days and it will eventually go away. But I needed to be on an all-liquid diet for a while and slowly build up to solid foods to avoid continuing to irritate the stomach.

At this point, my host family and I were exhausted. They had been following me around all night and I hadn't slept a bit. It was time for me to get out of that place and into the hands of a doctor I trusted. My host family was doing their best! But we were all just barely hanging in there and with so many diagnoses and so many medications, none of us knew what to do!

My aunt knew this family of doctors that lives in Mexico City and so we called them up. He immediately offered up his house to me and assured me that he would take me to a good hospital to get checked out. My mom had a plane flight booked for that evening before I could even hang up!

That whole day I was barely able to get up enough energy to pack but I managed. Unfortunately, the recyclable plastics I had collected did not make the cut. With such a hasty packing job, my suitcase was already too full.

Here are the four bags of plastic waste I produced in those three weeks in Melaque that I left there:

As my bad luck continued however, my flight was canceled after being delayed for three hours and I had to return back to my host family for the night. I was so tired and so hungry and in so much pain it was a wonder I even made it! I was only able to consume liquids at this point and even that was hard on my stomach. At around lunch time I forced myself to eat some baby food (chicken and vegetables for protein) which only made me curl over and cry in pain. Thankfully, the next morning I was able to board a flight to Mexico City, one step closer to being home.

The family there in Mexico City didn't take me to the hospital right away because magically I had improved slightly overnight and was able to eat bland foods. I felt great! They consulted with the hospital doctor over the phone and decided to observe me over night. Which....didn’t' go well. Pain - check. Nausea - check. Sleep - not a wink!

To keep this story short, I'll abbreviate my next four days in the hospital. It was a beautiful place! And I don't mean that sarcastically. It was like a resort and I was very well treated. After many tests and trying a variety of medicines, a CAT scan revealed that I had a swollen colon which was diagnosed as colitis due to the crazy amounts of medicine I had been taking. Lab tests cleared me of any viruses, parasites, or infections. Basically, I had to get the inflammation to go down and the only way to do that was to eat a simple, bland diet and relax. I also was put on another anti-acid as well as an anti-spasm to help with the pain. The doctor was incredibly nice there and I couldn't have been happier with the support of the family in Mexico City. The wife even stayed with me in the hospital each night!

But I needed to go home. On July 20th, the day after I was released from the hospital, I boarded a plane to recover at home. My parents met me at the airport and it was like a weight had been lifted from my shoulders. I have been recovering nicely since then although I am still on quite the restricted diet.

Overall, it was wonderful working with the programs and the children! If I hadn’t gotten sick, I would have passed the time easily! Unfortunately I was only able to work about 10 of the 20 I was supposed to. I was very disappointed though in the limited options available for recycling as well as the constant use of plastic and Styrofoam in Melaque. My host family did however bring all their compost scrapes to a local pig farm so I didn't produce any compost waste at their house!

In synopsis, my calculation for plastic and trash production this month is going to be a rough one. But for the purpose of keeping track, I did try to gauge it while I was there.

Here's my rough list of the trash I produced while there so you can have an idea.

-Four gallon bags of recyclable and non-recyclable plastic produced in Melaque.

-Four days of meals received in the hospital that were covered in saran wrap.

-Four days of plastic cups and Gatorade bottles received at the hospital.

-Four days of food received at the hospital, uneaten, and sent back.

When I think about it, the bags of recycling didn't weight much and neither would the saran wrap at the hospital. I was able to eat most of what they gave me as well (because it was so little!) so I don't believe the un-composted waste is that much.

And just to clarify, mandatory medical waste is something I do not count towards my monthly trash jar. So even though I produced dozens of needles, bandages, and IV bags while in the hospital, I consider those unavoidable and are not counted. Medicine that I take home however is counted (which I will be finishing up in August and will count in that month).

Considering all of that, I am going with 7 pounds of trash for July. And most of it was plastic. Basically, the worst month ever. Literally. All of last year I only produced 3.5 pounds of trash and this month I literally doubled it! There goes my chance of beating my record...

The important part for me to focus on though is what I learned. Otherwise I get too saddened by the large amount of trash and wallow in a sense of guilty and embarrassment.

So here it is. What I learned!

1. You need to research an area before you travel there hoping to be zero waste. Don't vacation to an area with zero recycling unless you are confident you will be able to avoid all recycling.

2. Be upfront with your program, host family, or hotel/hostel about your zero waste lifestyle. Make sure they understand what that means before you travel there. You are responsible for telling them. They can't just guess it by looking at you.

3. Sickness happens. And when it involves a hospital, a lot of waste is produced. Don't feel guilty. Take the time you need and get better. Then start helping the planet again!

4. Goals are what are important. I had a goal of being zero waste while traveling and I tried to stick to it. If you fail, like I did, that doesn't mean you stop trying! Now you have experience! Motivation! A reason to improve!

“Mexico” is my new reason to keep improving. My reason to continue educating people about the harmful effects of waste. My reason to keep traveling and exploring! My reason to treasure my health.

And with that, I begin a new month. Boy, August, let’s hope you treat me well! My trash jar is begging to be empty for a little while.

Stay healthy out there!

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