Thursday, September 30, 2010

Doing things just because we can

I was talking to James of yesterday about living trash-free, environmentalism and life in general. He recently sold his car, and was telling me about the experiences he garnered after selling the car, experiences that he wouldn't have had with the car. He started taking the bus, and thought, "These are real people. These people have stories." At the same time, he said how not having a car re-organised his life, in that access to objects and things has changed, especially in time. For example, he said that now since he doesn't have a car, he can't hop into it in the middle of night to grab a burger at a fast food joint somewhere. He waits now for his chance to get a burger, and that may be a week or two from when he first thought about getting one. But the fact that he has to wait for certain things he took for granted earlier gives him a greater sense of satisfaction when the time finally comes around.

This speaks to larger issues of consumption in general. Most of the things we buy, and most of the things we do, come out of the ease of access to them. We buy, we drink, we eat, just because we can. What if I couldn't buy canned foods from Europe? What if I couldn't buy a new cell phone every year? What if I had to cook my own food because fast food wasn't available? I would have to re-organise my life, live here and now, spatially and in time. I would buy local, I would spend time cooking with friends, I would be happy with the cell phone I have, and I wouldn't be trashing our planet along the way.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Guest Blog #3: Minimum Waste Wedding - Zachary Brym

As my lovely new wife and I celebrate our one year anniversary, it is important to reflect back on the year and remember the strength and commitment that I vowed on that day. Though Maria and I declared our everlasting love and dedication to support each other as equal partners, we also confirmed our devotion to a lifelong experiment, living within the constraints of the environment around us. Sustainability is not just a term we learned in college, but a lifestyle we work to support everyday. I am sure Maria and I will continue to contribute to Darshan's blog related to our work at the University of Michigan and the efforts we put forth at our home in Ypsilanti, but this first post serves primarily as a "Thank You" to Darshan.

Darshan presided over our wedding (the photograph bellow was taken of our chuppah during the ceremony). He has continually served as an inspiration and source of zen throughout the year. We have been friends for many years and it is part of the strength of this friendship that we have each made great steps towards sustainability. Long before Darshan declared his zero waste campaign we had been considering the many ways we could decrease the environmental footprint in our lives. Our wedding proved to be one way in which we could practice our environmentalist beliefs as well as impact more than 100 people during the event. Some of the many ways in which we reduced the impact of our wedding include: sending biodegradable wedding invitations with wildflower seeds embedded in the paper, hosting the event at Gallup Park outdoors, decorating our chuppah with ivy and goldenrod from the site, purchasing a seasonal arrangement of flowers from the Ann Arbor Farmers Market, and providing guests with a primarily local and organic meal of spinach and goat cheese cake, breaded chicken breast, and steamed vegetables on compostable dinnerware.

With confidence, I can say Darshan contributed zero waste to my wedding (though he will contest compost is a trash item). I am forever grateful for our friendship and the camaraderie shared throughout our struggle for a widespread sustainable initiative. Good luck in your quest for a minimum waste year.

~Zachary Brym (on his way to a wonderful PhD at Utah State)

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Birding at a dump

"Not far from Great Salt Lake is the municipal dump. Acres of trash heaped high. Depending on your frame of mind, it is either an olfactory fright show or a sociological gold mine. Either way, it is best to visit in winter.

For the past few years, when the Christmas Bird Count comes around, I seem to be relegated to the landfill. The local Audubon hierarchy tell me I am sent there because I know gulls. The truth lies deeper. It's an under-the-table facor. I am sent to the dump because secretly they know I like it.

As far as birding goes, there's often no place better. Our urban wastelands are becoming wildlife's last stand. The great frontier. We've moved them out of town like all other "low income tenants."
I like to sit on the piles of unbroken Hefties, black bubbles of sanitation. It provides comfort with a view. Thousands of starlings cover refuse with their feet. Everywhere I look--feathered trash.

The starlings gorge themselves, bumping into each other like drunks. They are not discretionary. They'll eat anything, just like us. Three starlings picked a turkey carcass clean. Afterward, they crawled inside and wore it as a helmet. A carcass with six legs walking around--you have to be sharp counting the birds at the dump.
The symmetry of starling flocks takes my breath away; I lose track of time and space. At the dump, all it takes is the sweep of my hand. They rise. Hundreds of starlings. They wheel and turn, twist and glide, with no apparent leader. They are the collective. A flight of frenzy. They are black stars against a blue sky. I watch them above the dump, expanding and contracting along the meridian of a winged universe.

Suddenly, the flock pulls together like a winced eye, then opens in an explosion of feathers. A peregrine falcon is expelled, but not without its prey. With folded wings he strikes a starling and plucks its body from mid-air. The flock blinks again and the starlings disperse, one by one, returning to the landfill.

The starlings at the Salt Lake City municipal dump give us numbers that look good on our Christmas Bird Count, thousands, but they become faceless when compared to one peregrine falcon. A century ago, he would have seized a teal.

I will continue to count birds at the dump, hoping for under-the-table favors, but don't mistake my motives. I am no contemplating starlings. It is the falcon I wait for--the duckhawk with a memory for birds that once blotted out the sun."

An unnatural history of family and place
by Terry Tempest Williams

Monday, September 27, 2010

At what point is something a problem?

While having dinner with Krista and Serge last night, Serge wondered, "Is waste and trash only a problem if they cause sickness to someone?"

This post is for the sociologists out there. I am wondering at what point something becomes a problem big enough that people feel compelled to take action about it. This seems to tie together a lot of threads I have been trying to articulate over the past few weeks - visibility versus invisibility of trash, broken cycles, problem definition, and the scales of trash formation. I thought about this because there is a potentially big problem we are in the process of creating, and it is likely to be significant in the near future - drugs, pesticides and hormones in water. These are of course, much more silent and invisible threats than real physical trash, yet are still another manifestation of the same fundamental problems we have in our society.

I went to a talk by Professor Tyrone Hayes of UC Berkeley a couple of years ago, in which he talked about the growing amount of atrazine being washed into drinking waters, and waters in which amphibians breed. This pesticide, which is used in large amounts for growing corn, has the potential to turn male frogs into hermaphrodites.

Below is a picture of various drugs and anti-depressants that are now commonly found in fish living downstream of sewage facilities (from the National Geographic).

Our sewage treatment facilities also do not clean our waters for birth control hormones, the concentrations of which have been increasing in drinking water.

I don't mean to sound all negative and pessimistic, but these are serious issues, and again, an indication that things just aren't right. Now, what does it take to get people motivated enough to realise that this is a problem of waste, degradation, and pollution? What does it take for us to make linkages in our minds and hearts between these problems, that on the surface may seem disconnected, yet are manifestations of the same problem?

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Broken cycles

Almost all of the processes in our universe our cyclical. Stars are born in nebulae, and once they have spent their fuel, they explode in dazzling supernovae that seed our universe with elements that make life possible. The Earth does revolve around the sun, whether I like cold weather or not, and spring harbours new colour just as spectacularly as the snow blankets it out. Hawks from Canada migrate down to Argentina each winter, and make the trek back to Canada when their bodies tell them it is time. The "waste" in nature is food and fodder for new life, continuing cycles of existence and being - bodies are eaten up by the soil, and natural fertiliser is left behind after dinner. Cycles can also exist in our patterns of behaviour and being. Good can beget good, and a smile will brighten someone's day. Yet it seems that when it comes to larger scale communities, decisions and policies, we have defined the boundaries of our existence and influence to encompass less than the larger cycles that exist in nature, space and time; we have broken sacred cycles. Trash is a result of these broken cycles.

Broken cycles and an ethic of "more" can lead only to unsavoury outcomes. The concentrations in which we produce waste, and the rate at which we produce this waste are at odds with our universe's ability to keep up with restoration. We have all heard about "cradle to cradle" thinking and action. Achieving this is nothing but realising and bowing to natural forces, and regaining knowledge lost because of our tightly defined boundaries. Is it so hard to understand how the universe works?

Saturday, September 25, 2010

The options are there. We just have to make the right choices.

I had tremendously positive responses my no-trash project during Earthfest this past week. Students, faculty, staff, and residents were truly fascinated and shocked by knowing how it is possible to generate so little trash after six months. Of course I mentioned that cutting food packaging will get most of us 90% of the way there. I was asked about how difficult it actually is to generate no (or very little) trash. The overwhelming answer is that it is terribly easy, for several reasons...

Jason mentioned that doing something like this is just like switching from eating meat to not eating meat. Once you get used to it, you are used to it. I like to think of it as a subconscious state of being. Let's take this example of switching from non-vegetarianism to vegetarianism. Imagine you go to a restaurant. In your non-vegetarian state, you don't think twice about ordering meat at a restaurant. You know, subconsciously that you do eat meat, and that it is okay to do so. Now imagine you go cold turkey and say, "No more meat!" The first few times you go out to a restaurant, you may feel tempted to order meat, because it was only a little while ago that subconsciously, it was okay to order meat. Now you have to remind yourself that you don't eat meat, and you just focus on the vegetarian options on the menu. However, after a while, one month, two months, you internalise subconsciously that you are a vegetarian, and you don't eat meat. The fact that meat is on the menu doesn't even bother you, because now, you are a different person. This is exactly how it works with generating no trash. You change from one person to another person after a transition phase, and you just stop thinking about it.

This wonderful town of Ann Arbor is set up for each one of us to be creative and thoughtful and challenge ourselves to make a difference. We have all of the options right before us. There are vegetarian restaurants, and non-vegetarian restaurants, and restaurants in between. There is a beautiful urban centre and wonderful nature preserves that surround us. We can shop at Kroger, or we can shop at the People's Food Coop. We can satisfy our cravings at Bivouac, or at Kiwani's Club. In the end, the options are there. We just have to make the right choices.

Friday, September 24, 2010

When we use, we don't conserve

On my way to Professor Hardin's Conservation Justice class today, I was reading the National Geographic. This month, there is a story, 'The Pierced Heart,' about illegal logging in Madagascar, especially for the beet-coloured rosewood tree, seen below.

The writer, Robert Draper, speaks eloquently about the growing ecological and biodiversity crisis being caused because of thoughtless logging. There have been waxing and waning international pressures on the Madagascan government for years now, waning when a President says such logging is illegal, and waxing when new Presidents think the government is cash-strapped enough to resume such logging. Yet, Draper rightly states that, "The outside world is in no position to lecture, given its own voracious appetite - sometimes benign, sometimes less so - for Madagascar's wondrous resources." The above tree earned this man $6, and the wood was eventually sold for about $5000 in China.

If there was no demand, there would be no supply. Until we keep thinking that we will find ourselves in what we use and what we consume, we will continue to fell trees that took 500 years to grow in five minutes. As long as we think we need the latest techno-gadget, mining companies will gladly blast through valleys and trees for mine rare earth metals. When we use, we don't conserve.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Generating "knowledge," but gaining little wisdom

I had an absolutely wonderful time at Earthfest yesterday, where I talked with residents of Ann Arbor, students, administrators and staff about how trash speaks to larger environmental and social concerns. People were extremely curious about how to reduce trash generation, and were surprised to see how little trash I've created in the past six months. I am looking forward to more conversations and questions tomorrow on North Campus. Here is a picture of my table...

I met a truly fascinating man yesterday, Jason Bishop (picture below). He had absolutely fascinating stories of trash collection and recycling at the University Northern Texas, which is in Denton, TX. That's exactly where he's from. He was paid $75 per week, by a man who was interested in the plastics people threw away, to go through all the trash there and collect these plastics. He was allowed to keep the metals and cans, which added to his weekly wage. He also spent two years working on a garbage truck. Once when he was picking garbage up, he ran into a lady that was getting rid of a stereo, in mint condition, a brand new Sony system. She said that her daughter wanted a better brand, and so she was throwing this system away. Of course, Jason took the system...

Probably the most insightful comment of the day came from Graham, the outgoing (tears) head of the Student Sustainability Initiative. We were talking about whether our present state of environmental affairs was inevitable. We were also trying to think of decisive moments in our recent history that has led us to where we are. We both agreed that the development of the modern car and assembly line was one of these moments. Speaking to industrialisation more broadly, he said, "We've generated a lot of "knowledge" in the past two hundred years, but we've gained very little wisdom." This comment blew me away with its weight. We would hope our experiences, failures and accomplishments would define paths of greater wisdom. As time moves forward, so should our thoughtfulness, care and respect toward our world and its diversity grow. When we listen to the elders, we expect words filled with meaning defined through experience. Yet for all of the experiences of mankind in the past centuries, we behave as if every new problem we face has come from out of nowhere, and has no bearing on our future decisions. The Cuyahoga River catching fire, methyl isocyanate being released in Bhopal, petrochemicals being dumped in Cote d'Ivoire, birds being drowned alive in crude in the Gulf of Mexico, World War II...these are experiences we should have learned from, and should learn from. Where is wisdom? Does it only reside in the teachings of Confucius, Gautam Buddha and Mohammad, from centuries ago?

A day worth of trash from the Angell Hall complex being sorted.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Cameras rolling...Earthfest

Earthfest is this week. Come to the Central Campus Diag on 21/9/2010 (Tuesday) between 10 am and 2 pm, or on 23/9/2010 (Thursday) to the North Campus Diag. I will be there, with the trash that I've produced since 29 March.

Here is a video that Ryan, one of the leaders of the Student Sustainability Initiative, has made for my booth...

Friday, September 17, 2010

Why focus on trash and waste?

Katie asked me a pointed question on Thursday, while we were talking about nuclear waste - "Some people say focusing on a problem like trash takes away from devoting energy to more significant environmental problems. What do you think?"

Trash is visceral. We feel trash. We smell it, touch it, and hear it, sometimes every day, several times a day. When we go out to dinner, we use napkins to wipe our hands. When we crack open a bottle of wine, we rip off the wrapping hiding the cork. As soon as we're done with a plastic bottle of orange juice, some of us lift lift the lid of the trash can in our kitchen and throw the bottle out. The yard of a college fraternity house is littered with plastic cups on game day. We hear the early trash collectors with their huge truck at the crack of dawn, lifting and crushing pounds of trash. A trash bin filled to the brim releases a putrid smell that just makes us want to walk away. Indeed, trash, when we are near it, suffers way less from a problem of perception than do our other friends, such as greenhouse gases. Take carbon dioxide for example. When we flip on the light switch, the light appears here, but the odorless, colourless carbon dioxide is emitted elsewhere. How many of us can visualise such an invisible threat? What does 385 parts per million mean? That means that out of a million, there are 999,615 parts of other gases. Greenhouse gases suffer from a perception problem.

But that doesn't mean that trash and greenhouse gases aren't related. The social, economic and philosophical structures in place that cause the formation of trash and greenhouse gases are the same. Trash is just a different manifestation of the same problem - consumption without limits, carelessness about the future and disrespect for the ecosystems of the present.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Experiencing beauty, and the trash borne of it

Trash is borne out of, and is a byproduct of, our desire to control what we experience. Humans are the only animal species I can think of that want to control what happens to them. We build our homes such that air conditioning will keep the air temperature at 70 degrees Fahrenheit year round, we set our alarms to wake us up at predetermined times, and we cook food to our tastes. One consequence of this is that we've lost our abilities to cope with situations we were able to cope with in the past - living off of what we find, for example. But our ability to control what we experience has also led us to places where humans cannot survive, and yet are incredibly beautiful places - the depths of oceans, space, and the peaks of mountains. These places instill in us a sense of wonder and amazement, but to a degree only if someone knows about it, experiences it, and shares the experience. I didn't know about Bahamian blue holes until I read about them, but once I realised what they were, I thought they were beautiful, and it would be a wonderful experience to see them in person. Unfortunately, the only way we can control what we experience is to have something, a man-made product with us. Furthermore, these products, once they have served their purposes, become excess baggage on our voyages. What we do in the end is taint these pristine environments with our presence by leaving behind what is essentially trash.

For example, we have turned Mount Everest into the world's highest garbage dump. There are more than 100 tons of trash lying on Mount Everest. "The government of Nepal has taken steps toward protecting Mt. Everest. Thanks to a 1992 law, if climbers leave any nonbiodegradable trash such as plastic containers on the mountain, they lose a $4,000 pre-expedition deposit. A Sherpa incentive program, instituted in 1994, pays Sherpas for every discarded oxygen bottle they retrieve from the mountain. Glass bottles were banned on Everest in 1998."

But also think about the Clif bar you take on your trip into the woods, or the canister of propane you carry to make some soup while camping, or the band-aid you keep just in case you cut yourself rock-climbing. In our quest to observe beauty, we taint it.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Personal responsibility

The problems that stand before us are grave and gargantuan, and it is reasonable for us to think that they are so. A slow and constant turning of the knobs, over decades, starting from shaky ethical and moral foundations, has led us here. The fact that we have hundreds of millions of people that have expectations of now of what it means to be "developed" and "progressed," also defined under the same ethical and moral foundations, has given our societies tremendous inertia and momentum. Geopolitical strife, nuclear weapons, social justice, ecological degradation, the list is tireless. It is easy for us to accept defeat without even trying to put up a fight. And a vast majority, at times ignorant of the implications of their life's choices, are complicit in accepting defeat.

I received an email from someone who works at the University, dealing with waste and recycling. This person has been working for the University for years, and here are some thoughts...

"What I am always most surprised by, but also not surprised at all at the same time, is how much talk people can be without action. I am by no means the perfect green citizen, but I don't lecture others on how they should do something so that it's easier for me. Example: for years, people would complain to me about yogurt cups not being recyclable at U-M. My response? Make your own or buy it in larger containers. However, no one ever took me seriously on it. I'd get responses like "Yeah right," or "Oh, I guess I could do that," though you could tell that they wouldn't. I hate how people refuse to take responsibility for their own green behavior. It's always that something's not easy enough or convenient enough. Very frustrating."

The pill that is hard to swallow is the following: in general, it is our fault for the way things are. And it must be our responsibility to accept our fault, and do all we can to be models for those who are complicit in easily accepting defeat. In the end, while all of us may not be leaders for masses of people, we can at least know in our heart and soul that we have not contributed to the problem, to the extent that is possible.

Special shoutout to Paul.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

To landfill

The world faces environmental issues, environmental justice included, because of a disconnect between how we humans think we live our lives, and how we actually live our lives. There is a disconnect between what we think is important, and what actually sustains us, allowing us "prosperity" and peace of mind. We think, in the West (and more so now in many other countries), that our streets are clean and that it is unseemly to have it any other way, of course, we are a "developed country." We condone and encourage the purchasing of new products, cutting edge and faster than ever before. We think that this signifies progress; we think that the future is always better than the past. We think that it is important to support policies, economic systems and actions that promote ways of making a living that we have come to accept as essential and necessary. Yet we actually are sweeping great harms under the rug and stuffing them underground. We actually are depleting our Earth's capacity to renew itself, to sustain plants, animals, watersheds, prairies and humans. We actually are continuing a legacy a recklessness, carelessness, unthoughtfulness, and disrespect towards land, rocks, water, air, animals and humans.

As I've mentioned previously, we have structured our communities around how we can dispose of our trash. The fact that trash in the West is invisible makes us feel that we are doing small amounts of harm to our environment. Yet there is a disconnect between what we think happens to the trash, and what actually happens to the trash. Have you ever considered that the trash does not just vanish into thin air? Much of our trash ends up in landfills, or in our air after it is burned. I'll ask you again, have you considered that the plastic cup you are drinking from, once thrown away, will just sit somewhere else, for a long, long time?

Poonam, one of the heads of the Student Sustainability Initiative at the University of Michigan, had a wonderfully simple idea: what would happen if we changed the labels on our trash bins from "Trash" to "To landfill"? How would that change our perceptions of trash? How would that challenge us reduce trash? A meeting with the head of recycling and waste management at the University yesterday shed some light on how disconnected we are from the fate of the trash we produce. She said that "this would only confuse people, and encourage them, in a rush, put a non-recyclable into a recycling bin, consequently contaminating the recyclables." Do we actually accept the fact that trash goes to landfills?

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

An American pioneer

"The stream is full of stops and gates. Here it has piled up rocks in its path, and pours over them into a tiny pool its has scooped at the foot of its fall. Here it has been dammed by a mat of leaves caught behind a fallen limb. Here is must force a narrow passage, here a wider one. Tomorrow the flow may increase or slacken, and the tone will shift. In an hour or a week that rock may give way, and the composition will advance by another note. Some idea of it may be got by walking slowly along and noting the changes as one passes from one little fall or rapid to another. But this is a highly simplified and diluted version of the real thing, which is too complex and widespread ever to be actually heard by us. The ear must imagine and impossible patience in order to grasp even the unimaginableness of such music.

But the creation is musical, and this is a part of its music, as bird song is, or the words of poets. The music of the streams is the music of the shaping of the earth, by which the rocks are pushed and shifted downward toward the level of the sea.

And now I find an empty beer can lying in the path. This is the track of the ubiquitous man Friday of all our woods. In my walk I never fail to discover some sign that he has preceded me. I find his empty shotgun shells, his empty cans and bottles, his sandwich wrappings. In wooded places along roadsides one is apt to find, as well, his overtraveled bedsprings, his outcast refrigerator, and heaps of the imperishable refuse of his modern kitchen. A year ago, almost in this same place where I have found his beer can, I found a possum that he had shot dead and left lying, in celebration of his manhood. He is the true American pioneer, perfectly at rest in his assumption that he is the first and the last whose inheritance and fate this place will ever be. Going forth, as he may think, to sow, he only broadcasts his effects."

Traveling at Home by Wendell Berry.

Monday, September 6, 2010

Some more thoughts on the definition of the problem

In my last post, I talked about the ever-growing amount of "e-waste" being shipped overseas. I can attribute this growing amount of e-waste to a few things:

1) Electronics are intentionally made to not last more than a couple of years.
2) Everything is being "upgraded" - you might be perfectly happy to use your old computer (which works well), but other people, companies, organisations, etc. use new versions of various software that require newer versions of hardware to process. In the end, you have to "upgrade" if you want to be a part of the majority of society.
3) There is a social pressure for people, especially the young, to have newer versions of perfect functional products, take for example the new iPhone.
4) We think that what is new is better than what is old, not only from a functional standpoint, but also from the standpoint of materials, efficiency and "environment."

The fourth point is what I would like to elaborate on in this post. I previously have elaborated on what is embodied in products that we have already. When we purchase something, we have agreed to all that has gone on to make that product (whether we like to think about it or not), including the societal, cultural, ecological and economic impacts. Materials are permanently extracted, from the earth, and tons of energy and freshwater are used to morph and shape these elements and compounds into something "useful" and "usable." When we buy something "more efficient," you also agree to all that has gone on to make that product. There is a certain amount of "life" that you purchase, and it is up to us to make sure we make full use of the products while they still function. I like to take the example of buying a new Toyota Prius as opposed to buying an older, used car. This article from Wired makes it very clear - you will be doing less harm to the environment by either keeping your old car, or buying another used car, than by purchasing a new Prius. Here is another article to think about...

In the end, it is up to us to decide whether to buy into the fads, fashions and branding. But hopefully we can make our decisions using some common sense and thoughtfulness.

Friday, September 3, 2010

Trash in India - Let's import trash!

I had written recently about how Trafigura had illegally dumped tons of petrochemical wastes in Abidjan, the capital of Cote d'Ivoire. Indeed, the so-called "developing nations" have turned into dumping grounds for the so-called "developed nations." Well, here are a few more examples of this, in particular, dealing with India.

The Times of India reported in April about how a port in Tuticorin, Tamil Nadu (a state in India) accepts huge shipments of trash from "developed nations," which contain not only recyclables, but more toxic and hazardous wastes as well. Just as in the case of Trafigura, it is cheaper for companies and nations to "export" their trash (and problems) elsewhere than to deal with them at home, because of "stricter" environmental standards, less corruption or what have you:

"But why are the developed nations dumping their garbage on Indian soil? Simply because shipping municipal waste to India is about four times cheaper than recycling it in their own land. While it costs Rs 12,000 to recycle a tonne of rubbish after segregation in Britain, shipping the rubbish to India costs just about Rs 2,800."

What do you think happens when you "recycle" your electronic goods (your e-waste) in the West? You might think that "socially and environmentally responsible companies" that you bought your products from or send your products to will carefully dismantle the products, make sure heavy elements aren't leaked out, and somehow reform the plastics, semiconductor materials, etc. into "new" products. Not really. A lot of e-waste actually ends up being shipped to "developing nations" where "informal" recycling takes place - computers will be smashed, releasing heavy and toxic elements into the ground, air and water, wires will be removed, and the insulation will be melted off by boiling the wires in pots and pans (that people use to cook). This exposes the wires, which will then be recycled or sold for little value. More sadly, however, is that people, men, children and women, sit over these pots and pans, breathing in the noxious fumes. I listened to one story that said that there are more than 20,000 people in the outskirts of Delhi that deal with such waste - informally and dangerously. All of this is in the name of "progress," "style," and "fashion," constantly "needing to upgrade" what we have and leaving behind things we've used. I will be commenting more on this in my next post.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Trash in India - "Cleanliness is next to godliness"

In my school in India, General Education Academy, where I studied from 3rd to 10th, there would always be a quote or a thought at the top of the blackboard, and it changed everyday. These sayings including the usual "Make hay while the sun shines," or "An idle mind is the devil's workshop." There is one saying, however, that is frequently used in India, "Cleanliness is next to godliness."

India is a country of stunning contradictions. Vast slums sit beside beautiful bungalows and high-rise buildings where elites live. Peace of mind, body and soul preaching Hinduism is practiced in cities where people honk their horns constantly even if there is a traffic jam that you can't do anything about. And the most incredible of contradictions - people live and die around keeping their houses clean while they deface the environment and landscape around cleanliness next to godliness?

Most middle class people in India, at least in Mumbai, have someone employed that comes to wash dishes (once for lunch, once for dinner), wash clothes (once a day), and clean the floors (once a day, first sweep the floors, then wipe them down with water). Needless to say, the interiors of homes in India are spotlessly clean. People are so meticulous about this cleanliness, that they organise their days around when the servant comes to clean the home. This stands in stark contrast to how people treat their exterior surroundings. We used to live on the ground floor (or first floor in USA) of our apartment building in Mumbai. Since gravity acts downwards, we would notice people throw things, food, dough, banana skins, water, etc. out of the window. Sometimes the little balls of dough would land on cars with a big thump. I remember this one time when my neighbour walked outside one morning going to work, dressed in a nice sari, and ten feet out, got water, probably a little dirty, dumped on her. When people buy a little pack of chips or an even smaller pack of mouth freshener or tobacco, people thoughtlessly throw the plastic packaging on the side of the road, or in the middle of it, our out the window.

Why is it socially unacceptable to have your house even the slightest bit untidy, but absolutely fine to throw whatever you please on the road, or anywhere outside your home? (This results in pictures that I posted in my previous post.) With 1.2 billion people, it is easy to admit defeat in trying to change people's habits, so maybe people live by the motto "chalta hai." (Chalta hai translates roughly to it's fine, don't worry, just do whatever you want to.) The entire country does run on this attitude, which at times is wonderful, but at times frustrating and dangerous, especially when it comes to waste and trash. You can walk through beautiful parts of cities, towns and villages and still be presented by landscape-scarring trash. I still haven't figured out exactly what drives this attitude, but if you have any thoughts, please let me know...