Costa Rica is one of the preferred destinations of ecologically minded visitors. A large percentage of the country’s overall land area is dedicated to national parks and wildlife preserves, and visitors can have eco-friendly adventures all across the country. But before “green” activities—and tourism—became quite as popular in Costa Rica as they are today, Costa Ricans took part in the kind of inadvertent recycling common when goods are scarce. Unfortunately, modern life has put an end to much of this necessity-fueled recycling.

Packaging materials—styrofoam, bubble wrap and cardboard inserts—were practically nonexistent in Costa Rica about twenty years ago. People wrapped all valuables in newspaper, which was a prized commodity. Gardeners, who cut the grass with razor-sharp machetes, wrapped their tools in newspaper bound with string. Everyone stored old newspapers at home, and people reused the same wrinkled sheets over and over again. In the areas around San José, men pulled wooden carts through the streets, collecting old newspapers or other clean papers that people might not need. These papers then made their way to the Central Market (Mercado Central), in San José, where vendors used them to wrap fish and pieces of meat or to protect their vegetables.

Glass was also valuable, and some of these cart-pulling men also collected bottles from the houses around San José. Few home-goods or decorating stores existed in Costa Rica at the time, and people collected pretty bottles to use as vases and decanters. Thermoses were expensive and hard to find, so workers often transported their milky coffee to work in repurposed Coca-Cola bottles. A small bottle-cutting industry also thrived in Costa Rica, and people could buy drinking glasses made from all colors and sizes of bottles that had been sliced in half and filed smooth.

At about this same time, disposable plastic bags and plastic food containers were a rarity in Costa Rica. No stores sold Ziploc bags or Rubbermaid containers. People reused plastic bread bags for their lunches. Some market vendors sold their products in plastic bags that had once held other items. Almost everyone had a drawerful of plastic bags that they had washed and reused numerous times. Some people owned the odd piece of Tupperware, which they cared for assiduously and used repeatedly. Everyone also rinsed out plastic yogurt and margarine containers, keeping them to use for food storage. People often encouraged one another to buy particular foods at the grocery store, solely because they came in sturdy containers that would withstand many uses. One particular ice cream company used such fine containers that when it went out of business, most people were more sorry about the disappearance of the containers than about the ice cream itself.

With increased trade and more foreign imports, Costa Ricans now have access to hundreds more products than were available in the 1980s. Sadly, this new access has created in Costa Rica a new sense of disposability. Companies no longer pack their products in durable containers, and nobody reuses containers or paper the way they once did. Convenience has given rise to more waste. However, perhaps Costa Rica’s new eco-friendly identity will push it closer to the mindset of its inadvertent recycling days.

Writing and editing by Beaumont Hardy Editing.

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