Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Trash and Waste

Where there are people, there is trash. I'm pretty sure I read that somewhere and concluded that it is one of the wiser observations about humanity I've come across.

Indonesia is no exception. Trash is all over the place, quite literally. For as much natural beauty as Java has, it is somewhat sullied by the ubiquity of rubbish. On the streets, in fields, in the streams and rivers, clogging up gutters, littering the floors of shops--trash is everywhere. The reason? In most places in Indonesia, it is perfectly acceptable to litter. If you buy a drink or a snack and have no more use for the packaging, you can just chuck it wherever you feel like. Trash bins and garbage cans are rare enough, and where they do exist, they're usually positioned in strange, inefficient configurations.

In my village, trash that accumulates in houses is usually disposed of through one of several methods. Organic trash is often enough used to feed the animals that they raise. Inorganic trash is usually collected into a plastic bag and thrown into a stream next to the main road. Yes, you read that correctly. I have seen people dump out garbage from a trash bin directly into streams/canals. That water is carried down to the agricultural fields, where the trash accumulates again. The other method of disposing of trash is by burning it. In the course of a regular day, I'll usually see (or smell) a handful of houses burning piles of trash. That strange plastic-smoke odor tends to fill the air as I walk home in the evenings.

As an American, everything about the way trash is handled here shocks. Children throw candy wrappers on the ground and parents don't bat an eyelash. If you ask them, people will say that so much trash in public areas is ugly, but there is no hint of effort to tackle the problem. It's hard to imagine how the people could be so indifferent, but one of the other trainees offered a (partial) explanation that sounds somewhat reasonable. He said that the phenomenon of purchasing goods wrapped in plastic is relatively new here in Indonesia. For most people, it's only been a few decades since the food they buy started being packaged in plastic/aluminum/cardboard. For example, street vendors used to serve their food wrapped in banana leaves, not in plastic bags. Likewise, "packaging" used to use all organic materials (because that is what was available), so there was no net damage to the environment by throwing trash wherever you wanted. The problem is that this attitude, which was harmless fifty years ago, has carried over into an age where its product is now detrimental.

On my second or third weekend here, I was holding onto an empty plastic water bottle until I could find a trash can. My Ibu saw me holding it, took it from my hand, and dropped it on the ground.

This is how Indonesian people do it.

I picked up the bottle. I am not Indonesian. If you are American, you don't do this.

She tried to take it from me again, but I wouldn't let her have it. I put it in my pocket and disposed of it in some trash bin later on. The stand was purely moral--the ground was already littered with plastic bottles and wrappers, and it's highly likely that the trash from whatever bin I put the bottle in would just have been dealt with in an equally irresponsible fashion.

So far, none of the trainees I know have budged on their American approach to littering--it's wrong, and none of us do it. But it can be discouraging sometimes. For example, my friend Jenn, who is very conscientious about environmental protection, would often put any trash she accumulated while out of the house into her pockets or backpack (remember: no trash cans anywhere) and wait until she got home to throw it away. She thought this was a good way to deal with it until she realized that all the trash in her house is unceremoniously dumped into the canal directly in front of it.

The whole issue is appalling, not least of all because nobody seems to think of it as a problem. And to my eyes, which have done a bit of traveling, the appeal of Indonesia's natural beauty would be stronger if it weren't smudged by omnipresent rubbish.


I don't mean to smear this country. Seeing the way that trash is dealt with here prompted me to think about the ways in which Americans are environmentally irresponsible. We might feel shocked and self-righteous at the sight of shameless littering, but we don't bat an eyelash at the unbelievable amounts of energy we consume as individuals.

In my house, for example, electricity is consumed in just a handful of ways. Each room has exactly one light bulb (the high efficiency kind). The tiny, ancient, bunny-eared television set is turned on for many hours every day. People plug in phone chargers--or computer chargers, if you're me. There is a refrigerator, though it is not used the way it should be (that's a whole story in itself). And the rice cooker is often used to whip up the next batch in an endless procession of white rice. And that is all. No air conditioning, no electricity used for water heating, no dishwasher, no washing machine/dryer for clothing. No extra lights, no computers or extra television sets, no stereos, no plug-in fans, no vacuum cleaners, no electric stove or oven (cooking is done on a small gas stove).

Consumption of electricity per person here is a minute fraction of what it is in the US. In my completely unscientific estimate, a single four-person household here probably uses about 2% of the electricity used by a comparable household in the States. And when you consider how that power is generated in America (cough fossil fuels cough), it becomes clear that we, as Americans, are not standing on moral high ground when it comes to environmental responsibility. I mean, there are certainly attitudes and technologies in America that would be beneficial to cultivate in the developing world, but we ought always to keep in mind that WE are the truly wasteful ones. It seems that as long as we don't have to see the consequences of waste with our eyes, we can persist in our wasteful habits.

And, to be honest, I would have to do a lot more research on what happens to trash in the US before being able to conclude that we actually deal with it in a "responsible" way. All I know is that I don't see it all over the place, but that doesn't mean it's being dealt with the right way.

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