What if a rural community decided it was too beautiful to trash and too thrifty to waste anything? It would be working like Chamisal, New Mexico.
Most Americans don’t have to think about where their trash goes. They put it outside on the curb and it goes away, usually far away to a place with few people. People in frontier, sparsely populated communities don’t have the luxury of not knowing where their trash goes. Most of it stays right there, maybe somewhere out-of-sight, but once discarded, it stays.
Some frontier communities fight to stop the importation of trash from other communities for environmental and eco-economic reasons while other communities lobby to get trash shipped in, also in the name of economic development.
But one community in Taos County, New Mexico, is working hard – and unconventionally — to take charge of its waste. It isn’t one of the famous spiritualist and artistic centers that usually grab all the attention. It’s a very special place above the village of Chamisal on the mesa between the Rio Grande Valley and the peaks of the southernmost Rocky Mountains.
Historically there was little to no waste generated in this region’s sustainable communities. Even in today’s consumer society, people living here have always strived to reduce what they waste. The beauty of this place has inspired community members to limit what we send out as trash, either through the formal garbage system or the informal throw-it-in-the-forest method.
Yet we take this effort a step further: our local trash collection depot houses the Reuse Center from which gently used items are shared.
Sustainability of Old Trash versus Destructiveness of New Trash
On walks in the woods forty years ago, I was surprised to see that in the old days people had thrown their trash into arroyos (dry washes). But this trash was all decomposing in place; it was biodegradable.
The trash I now call Old Trash dates from ancient times up to pre-WWII. Pottery, tin cans, scrap metal, plaster and glass, with the occasional partly disassembled car thrown in every now and then — all this garbage breaks down over time.
Old Trash, in fact, is now a desirable commodity. Artists walk the hills looking for rusting tin and other found objects biodegrading in the old dumps. Many of the items found on the hillside later reappear as excellent art, sought after by collectors.
In contrast, most New Trash, castoff after World War II, is composed of there-forever petroleum products. The majority of New Trash is plastic in different phases of breaking-down into smaller pieces of plastic but never actually going away. The plastic bag waving on the barbed wire fence has become the new State Flower of New Mexico – of other states, too. This imposition of plastic into the environment and the inability to control it have long-term ramifications, most of which we don’t know.
In the 1980s rural Taos County community volunteers built a shed for items that were still usable, too good to go to a landfill. People here have very low cash incomes but a strong history of reuse and resource stockpiling. The reuse shed was welcomed and stayed busy with people dropping off and picking up still usable items.
From Trash to Economic Development
In the 1990s, the New Mexico Environment Department provided a grant to implement recycling using transportable dumpsters; the service was well used, for this is a community that wants to stay beautiful and trash free. In 1998, the U.S. Forest Service provided a $25,000 rural development grant to build a permanent ReUse Center at the Taos County Chamisal Transfer Station. The center now serves as a pilot program and model for other communities, receiving visitors (as well as recyclables) from near and far.
The ReUse Center itself is built from reused materials: shredded paper bales made from compressed used paper, material sometimes called “mixed corporate waste”. The columns holding up the roof are welded tire rims and the gables are filled with glass bottles.
When a youth art project was funded one summer, the young people chose to paint the ReUse Center, decorating the building beautifully with murals, tagging messages, and other graffiti. Now many of the painters are parents themselves, teaching their children about reuse as they show off their artwork from 20 years ago.
All kinds of items end up in the ReUse Center. The center is kept neat and organized by a combination of volunteers, people doing community service through the court system, and TANF moms and dads enrolled in the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program. TANF parents are required to work for their meager, government-provided income support. This mandate is very difficult to meet in communities like ours where jobs are few and far between. Small, very local projects like the ReUse Center let people provide a community service while learning and maintaining work skills.
Unclaimed items at the ReUse Center head into two sustainable waste streams. Cloth items are sorted in a large facility named the WEARhouse. Articles deemed reusable are stored for Clothing Helping Kids, an Albuquerque program, that pays the WEARhouse five cents a pound for clothes. Each year, about four tons of clothing is picked up by Clothing Helping Kids and kept out of the Taos landfill. Clothes that are soiled, torn and unusable are sent to be made into fabric-crete, a greener alternative to cement blocks or fill for walls.
A second landfill diversion has led to a start-up business: UpCycled Fashion.
From humble beginnings, and through the dedication of several community members, a business was developed from “free store” roots. UpCycled Fashion is a zero-waste business that creates jobs in our community.
With several small grants from foundations and public economic development agencies, UpCycled has already grown to provide incomes that are improving the lives of several families. Clothing is sold both at stores and online. The clothing line is also shown at various fashion shows each year, including the prestigious annual Taos Glam Trash fashion show. UpCycled’s slogans are compelling and true: “Cutting Edge Clothing With a Conscience: Clever Clothes for Smart Dressers.”
It Takes a Visionary – Creating the Next Generation of Reusers
“There is so much ‘stuff’ in the world and our community; sooner or later it all has to go somewhere,” says Jean Nichols of Llano, NM, leader of the community use-reuse program. “Creating upcycled and recycled art is a good way to move quality products from the waste stream and to create something beautiful, humorous, thought provoking – or all of the above.”
Nichols directs several arts and services projects in our community. She is the visionary who wrote and managed the grant for the ReUse Center and has forged partnerships with the New Mexico Women’s Foundation and other funders to build the UpCycled Fashion business. The New Mexico Arts Division, a state agency, describes Nichols’s work on its website. Highlighting the mission of Nichols’ Art for the Heart the state site explains:
Art for the Heart’s mission is to foster health through creativity. The gallery/studio offers art and creativity classes, workshops, and community collaborations; gallery and website sales of local artists’ work; a women’s group; summer youth projects; and has initiated a cottage industry turning discarded clothing into new fashions.
Jean has seen that the children in our community have always had the chance to participate in reuse and recycling from an early age. Through partnership projects with the Peñasco Independent School District, the nearby Dixon Elementary School, the Girl Scouts, and the Peñasco Area Community Association, we are assuring that younger generations understand and commit to reuse and recycling.
Our home is beautiful and it takes all of us to keep it that way.
Carol Miller is a community organizer from Ojo Sarco, New Mexico (pop. 400) and an advocate for Geographic Democracy: the belief that the United States must guarantee equal rights and opportunities to participate in the national life, no matter where someone lives.