Our recent travels took us through India, Vietnam and Cambodia – three countries in which you’ll see piles of rubbish burning on the sides of roads, either frequently or constantly, depending on exactly where you are. We went to India first, which of the three was by far the worst in this respect. So bad in fact that we almost didn’t notice the rubbish when we arrived in Vietnam. It’s all very well coming in from the outside and being appalled by just how much rubbish there is though, while your being there contributes to it. This clearly narrows the scope you have for disgust or complaint. Nevertheless, we had to drink water while in India obviously, but we were told (and didn’t particularly want to test it out) that the tap water was unsafe. So, we bought plastic bottled water – and it’s these plastic bottles that are just absolutely everywhere; the labels don’t even bother suggesting that you recycle them. They simply ask you to crush them, so that they might take up less space in landfill. So as we passed through, astounded by the scale of the problem, our options were get ill, dehydrate completely or contribute. So who’s to blame, if anyone?
Supposing it is that you cannot drink the tap water, which I suspect is the case, what’s the solution to that? Better quality tap water obviously. But what about the major producers of one of the main problems, the bottles – Nestlé, Pepsi & Coca-Cola. Not only do the leftovers of their more obvious products litter the entire country, but the water bottles they produce provide millions of gallons each day, especially to foreigners like myself. I shudder to think just how many bottles we got through in the relatively short time we were there. Perhaps a more important question then is who benefits from the tap water being apparently undrinkable? Well, Nestlé, Pepsi and Coca-Cola certainly do pretty well out of it. Would it be beyond them to lobby the Indian government, discouraging or slowing down investment in the infrastructure needed to make tap water drinkable?
But it’s not just bottles. An Indian family friend who traveled with us for a few days, laughed at us for not throwing our rubbish on the street. ‘You’re in India now’ he joked. The same thing happened on the toy train from Pathankot to Kangra. En-route we stopped briefly enough to grab some food through the window. It was served on a polystyrene tray, which we didn’t really notice being so hungry and a little naive at that point. On we went, passing through some of the most beautiful scenery I’ve ever seen, the train taking a great curved line along the edge of hills that yawned gently down towards the wildlife sanctuary of Maharana Pratap Sagar. Trays fluttered from the windows as others finished their snack. I instead, hung my arm out of the window, dangling the tray so that the sticky sauce might run off it and I could slip it into the pocket of my backpack. The couple opposite sniggered as I fiddled around with it. Hundreds of miles away, watching the sun go down from a bridge in Rishikesh, we watched a man pull-up on a motorbike and lob plastic bags of rubbish in to the ‘holy’ Ganj. At the Himalayan foothills, cows lazily munched on rubbish a short walk from the Dalai Lama’s residence. Every train-line, every road, every river has a plastic residue.
It would really be very easy for me to criticise coming from a place where waste disposal and recycling is part of the weekly routine and really it’s a luxury for me to be able deliberate over it like this. It might too seem like a kind of patronising, lefty, eco-sadness but the scale of the problem in India alone is so overwhelming that, being completely truthful, I’m not quite sure that there is much we can do. It feels we may have passed the point of no return. Of course I don’t want that to be true – I’d like to think that if we ALL start recycling etc etc, we’ll save ourselves right at the very last moment. But I know that this is neither the solution nor very likely.
In a country of more than 1 billion too, I expect that for the majority of Indians there are far more pressing problems than plastic in the rivers (and they certainly don’t need me telling them to get their priorities right after a few weeks swanning around eating Masala!). Survival from day-to-day seems to be way higher up the list for most, especially those we call the financially and economically poor. Who then, does it come down to? Well all of us I suppose, no matter how disengaging a statement that may be.
While we may all be able to effect change, the force with which we can do so is not necessarily equally or democratically shared out. So-called ‘product stewardship’ now exists and is supposed to encourage producers to consider (and be responsible for to some extent) the life of their product beyond the point at which it is sold. If taken seriously, companies like Coca-Cola would be using compostable materials and/or taking responsibility for proper, efficient, sustainable means of recycling. This could include every aspect of the process, from collection to finished, recycled product. (If taken really seriously, Coca-Cola would voluntarily fold altogether). This is unlikely to happen until they are either legally or economically compelled to follow such a path.
A friend we made along the way, from Germany, who was equally astounded by the magnitude of the problem, suggested that it would continue to get worse until plastic became a scarcity, at which point we would be compelled to dig up, clean and reuse all that which we’ve buried. Sadly I think he may be right.
Of course India is not the only country with this problem and the reality is obviously that we share it, some of us moving it to someone else’s country; those in Europe have long been sending their waste and ‘recycling’ to other countries for ‘processing’. We are a little delusional if we think this is always what happens or indeed that even if it does that it is the end of the problem. Aside from being aesthetically displeasing, litter on the ground and in the rivers is probably leading us towards a toxic apocalypse of sorts. This is something that most of us, if we stop to think about it honestly and for long enough, probably know.
So despite what it might sound like, I’m not trying to gain the moral high ground here or to preach; I’m as much a part of the problem as anyone and I don’t shirk my responsibilities. In fact I can quite honestly say I didn’t drop a single piece of litter the whole time we were traveling – very noble of me I know! But what good did that actually do?! Every piece I didn’t drop, ended up being in a bin that was burnt on the side of the road or piled on top of other bins, that blew down the road or into rivers. What was the point of me holding on to it all as though it would make a difference? This is the question that any of us are faced with when we think about resisting, revolting, recycling, protesting…what difference will my tiny effort or contribution make amongst such a great mess?
Of far greater use to the planet, would be if I didn’t consume anything; if I didn’t use the products in the first place, nevermind bending over backwards each week to make sure not a single tin, bottle or container slips in to the landfill bin. Even better though, if I didn’t exist at all! Sadly though, perhaps for planet earth at least (and you too if I’m going on a little!), I do and my challenge is to navigate my way through to death causing minimal harm! We can all take this challenge on if we choose, but again the same question comes up – what difference will my tiny effort make? Why should I deny myself the luxuries, the ‘pleasures’ that money can bring when apparently no one else cares? Isn’t life hard enough without all these extra constraints, all this guilt, all this worry? Doesn’t it distract from the important things? Being too serious about things can take the joy out of life, the spontaneity; it can distract us so much we miss the genuine, real, simple pleasures – the ones that cost and damage nothing.
But it doesn’t have to be serious, or oppressive. A friend once told me that rather than try to do everything, she chose to do some things really, really well. And while this might sound like a bit of an excuse, it’s realistic, achievable and leaves you room for some joy.
Now, back to me! Where am I going with all this? I went traveling and didn’t like all the rubbish everywhere, so what? Get over it. Welcome to the real world. I don’t have the answers – I’m contradictory and hypocritical in my actions like most people. Maybe not as much as some, but more than others no doubt. What then can I offer? I can’t solve all the problems, I can’t change the world with a quiet little blog post. What I do have though is a really bad analogy and here it is:
We the minority ‘rich’, stand on the edge of the swimming pool sunning ourselves, drinking cocktails, pissing in to the water. The trouble is we haven’t realised the pool’s getting bigger and soon enough there’ll be no edge to stand on and we’ll all be flailing around in the great, drain-less urinal we’ve created! Nothing can stop this now. It’s too late!
So, what can we do if we’re all going to end up in the water anyway……??
STOP PISSING IN IT!!