Making a Difference with Paper Recycling in the Dominican Republic
Community development volunteering at a paper recycling cooperative in the Dominican Republic
Last updated September 2019
(Note: The Fathom travel brand, with whom we cruised to the Dominican Republic, no longer exists. This activity, however, is available as an onshore excursion with several cruise lines owned under the Carnival Corporation umbrella. A big thank you to the former Fathom Travel for providing this opportunity. Opinions and observations are my own.)
Our bus drove down the narrow streets of town and parked one block over from our destination. When we approached our destination on foot, the women at RePapel were waiting in front to greet us with song.
RePapel is a paper recycling association created by an enterprising group of women in the Dominican Republic in a small town on the outskirts of Puerto Plata. I came with a group of people on a Fathom cruise. During the three days we were docked at Amber Cove, we had opportunity to volunteer and work alongside locals on projects focused on improving environmental, educational and economic conditions.
The Dominican Republic is a beautiful country but it is also one of the poorest in the Caribbean. Unemployment is high. The recycling association provides employment for these women close to home. Most are sole supporters for their families and previously had to travel long distances for jobs. Fathom and its partner IDDI, an NGO which has been working in the Dominican Republic since 1986, provided a central workspace for these women.
With the help of IDDI translators, the women introduced themselves. We then divided into two groups. One group worked on crafts with artisans sharing the space. The other group, the one I was in, went to work recycling paper. We divided into sub-groups and rotated through the work stations, spending approximately twenty to thirty minutes at each one.
The first step was shredding paper, most of which were old invoices from a local business. We tore paper into bits and tossed the bits into bins, white paper bits with no printing in one bin, paper bits with printing and colour in another. They would each be used to make paper, pure white sheets and sheets with colours and marks showing up. I thought about how much easier this job would be with the electronic shredder in my office at home. But then again, maybe not. We carefully ripped each sheet to separate the pure white from the parts with printing. The shredder won’t make that distinction.
After the blender, the soupy mix is poured into troughs. We moved screens through the water in the troughs. When we lifted the screens and let the water drain off, paper pulp remained, covering the screen. We carefully pressed the contents of the screen onto sheets to dry in the sun.
Through a combination of sign language and the odd Spanish word, I asked the woman helping me at the trough if she had any children. She raised three fingers and said “hombre” (man). After I told her I had one Senorita, she called an IDDI guide over to translate. She wanted to tell me she also had ten grandsons.
Once the paper has dried, rollers or jars of sand are used to smooth out the lines the screens left on the paper. I found this to be very hard work, requiring good hand strength and stamina.
The women at RePapel were friendly, outgoing and cheerful. They broke into song several times. One of the songs was a recitation of the different stations involved in the paper making process. Partway through our work, as we moved between stations, a couple of Repapel women took us aside for a few moments to teach us to dance.
Midway through the morning, after we’d been through all the stations, both groups took a combined break. We had water, a banana or apple or cookie. Next door, a little boy looked out the window and made noises to attract our attention. Two teenage girls in the group asked permission and then took over apples for the boy and his sibling. The boy kept pointing at the younger girl’s mouth and saying “chains” in Spanish. He may have never seen braces before.
After the break, the groups switched jobs. Now I was working on crafts with the artisans. The four women working on crafts here are not part of the RePapel recycling group, but have received space to work at the centre. I threaded coffee beans onto a necklace, wove banana leaves, made candles and glued string onto bottles as the start of a decorative process.
The paper sheets made at RePapel go to a factory in Santa Domingo which makes journals, envelopes, notepads and cards with them. Some of those products were available for us to purchase.
When our time was up, the RePapel women sang and danced goodbye to us. The little boy next door followed us almost all the way to the bus, a shy smile on his face the entire time.
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Absolutely awesome. We need more like you! Volunteer Tourism is so very important, in all ways! I do dive trips to help megafauna.
Thanks Tam. It’s great you were able to find a way to use an interest and skill to help.
Don’t you think a song-and-dance break should be part of every workday? Love that part.
Agreed Deb. A song-and-dance break would do wonders for the spirit.
It melts your heart to see how poor these people are. And greeting you with songs when they know you are coming to help them is so nice! I didn’t hear about Volunteer Tourism until very recently and it seems like a great idea. I wonder however, how big of a difference can you make if you stay there only for a very short time.
Anda, the few hours I volunteered wouldn’t have made a huge impact on their own, The fact that there were part of an ongoing program with lots of hours before and after from others is key. I think one needs to look at the overall picture of any voluntourism program when choosing which one to participate in.
This is so cool! What a fabulous experience. And it’s amazing how the friendly welcome extended to you and your group. I love the idea that they included you in their dance rituals!
Jacquie, it was a great experience. I loved the positive energy of these women. They made work fun.
Volunteer tourism is great and well done you for getting involved in this experience – which looked really interesting, and something which I’d like to try at home too. Loved the idea of dance rituals too 🙂
Jo, it was an interesting experience and I have a new appreciation for what goes into making recycled paper.
Making paper is a really neat thing to create. Your post reminded me of helping my students make paper, but one of the ingredients was broccoli. I swear! I don’t think my memory is that bad. Anyways, it was interesting seeing that the old invoices were sorted according to having ink or no ink. Yes, the paper would be much “cleaner” looking than having broccoli bits sticking out!
Janice, I cannot imagine broccoli as an ingredient in paper. Making that paper must have been quite the experience.
Fathom Cruises experiential component is very innovative. Your paper recycling experience looks interesting. Glad to see they’re recycling.
It is an innovative venture. It was an amazing experience.
Such an interesting project. We didn’t get to do the recycled paper but felt that all of the impact activities that we did participate in on our Fathom cruise were very well done and definitely were very helpful to the island.
Veronica, I also felt the impact activities we participated in were well done. I’d like to go back and do some again and do the ones we didn’t get a chance to do.
This is fascinating and another neat glimpse into volunteer tourism. I was thinking the same thing about using an office shredder. It seems that larger sheet could be sorted and then shredded as pure white paper or not. At one point, I was almost going to try a paper-making project with my creative writing students as part of a book arts unit, but could never fully work it in. The closest I came was a fascinating explanation of how pages are cut from larger pieces for pagination.
Jeri, it was a great experience. I discovered that paper-making isn’t simple. I can see it being tough to work into a creative writing class.
Your experience was just like mine. It was fun to relive that opportunity!!
Caryn, I love reading and hearing about other Fathom passengers’ experience. I always find something which matches mine and it’s fun to relive. It’s also interesting to find out different perceptions and the different ways people were affected by the experience.
This reminds me of my days of making papier mache art items. I would have liked to see more of the finished products. I’d also love to visit the Dominican Republic, and will keep this spot in mind for a visit when I get there.
Carole, there were some cards and envelopes for sale, but I didn’t get any close-up photos. I would have liked to see the journals, but none were available when I visited. The Dominican Republic is a beautiful country.
The Domenican Republic was always famous in Europe for cheap all inclusive holidays and tourist which don’t leave the premises of their hotels. I’ve been twice and loved to explore the inland. I read a few posts about Fathom travel and the volonteer projects. It’s a good opportunity to get a broad insight of the reality in the country.
Marcelle, tourism is very important to the economy of the Dominican Republic. You’re right many tourists see little of the country beyond the premises of their all-inclusive resorts. It is a beautiful country with lovely people, an interesting history and a lot of need.
What a great experience. I love the paper making process and outcome. Hope they find an outlet to sell the products.
Rose Mary, it was an amazing experience.
This a tourism with a difference. I really appreciate how the whole idea of recycling has helped great jobs. Would love to volunteer some day. Thanks for sharing.
Bola, voluntourism is becoming more popular. When done right, I think it can make a real positive impact in needy places and provide a wonderful experience for the traveller.
What a great experience you had with Fathom. I love to see the women recycling and handmade paper is so beautiful. I hope the income from the cooperative will help them. A great example of volunteer tourism and making a difference.
So fun to read this. I was scheduled to go on that volunteering cruise, but hurt my back a few days before and had to cancel. Now I got to live vicariously about your important work here…. job well done!
Patti, it’s too bad you hurt your back and weren’t able to go. It was an amazing experience.
What an incredible experience and what a creative project. When I do break my vows of ‘no more souvenirs’ these are the things I would love to buy. A great post, Donna!
These kind of souvenirs are well worth buying!