American trash: where does it end up?

A large amount of American waste ends up in India. Whenever I travel to India and Bangladesh it is impossible to ignore the garbage everywhere. Let me describe the smell . . .  Imagine combining the tiger house at the zoo, the NY subway, a couple of B.O.-filled middle schools of pre-pubescent kids, the back-alleys of Chinatown, and that’s kind of what Bangladesh smells like in the summer time. Ok, maybe I’m being too kind.

In the desh, the piles of garbage pushed to the side of the main roads are about the size of tractor trailers. Some of it spills onto the drains and clog up the sewage system which leads to still water. Still water attracts mosquitos and flies. And mosquitos and flies lead to malaria and other diseases. Trash. You see stray dogs eating from it, poor women in saris sweeping around it, and a sad sight to see . . . sometimes you see children climbing up “mountains” of it. Growing up I just thought that desis were dirty. Not true. Go into the average desi’s house and you’ll see freshly washed floors, made beds, recently-dusted furniture, etc. It’s just that with one of the highest population densities in the world, and limited open space, there just isn’t enough space for the garbage to go.

Why am I thinking about this now? Last night I went to a bar in my neighborhood for a “green drinks” happy hour. You might be picturing one of those pints of green beer typically served on Saint Pattie’s day, but no. Green Drinks happy hour is an effort to connect neighbors to meet, drink, eat and talk about ways to make their neighborhood more “green”. There was a guy who walked around with organic pizza and said, “you can have a free slice if you are talking about sustainability issues.” I wasn’t sure if he was joking or serious. I asked, “is it ok to be talking about composting?” (I WAS joking) but whatevs, I got a free slice.

Fast forward, I get into a deep conversation with a gentleman from West Africa. It was one of those conversations that make you remember various disjointed memories from your past and make sense of it. Our topic: landfills.

The poorest "villages" in India are made of garbage and people sift through trash looking for something valuable to re-sell

I told him how I never have seen a landfill in America, but noticed how trash and bad smells were everywhere in Bangladesh and India. It makes you wonder, if the streets and drainage pipes have so much garbage piled up on them, what could the landfills in those countries possibly look like? This man was explaining how West Africa, India and Bangladesh (in the eyes of the US government) ARE landfills. For pennies, American (and European) companies export their garbage to poorer countries (like my motherland) and also China, Hong Kong, Nigeria, the Ivory Coast, Brazil, and Somalia for example. For Britain, it costs $244.8 to recycle and process a ton of garbage in the U.K., shipping that same garbage to India costs just about $57.12. With poverty comes loose regulations and lack of law enforcement, and the poorest people who live amongst the trash have not only accepted being the trash can of the world, but also have learned to make a living at it. Many villages in India are literally made of garbage as their foundation, like where the little kids grew up in Slumdog Millionaire. There are folks who live in those slum villages and their entire lives are spent sifting through heaps and heaps of trash looking for something valuable to re-sell (much of it is American e-waste). But with a lack of proper medical care and sanitation in these dangerous landfills, it’s a miracle that anyone can reach adulthood under these conditions.

Being in an intercultural relationship, I feel like a global citizen, and with that comes responsibility. I don’t show allegiance to just one land. I want to improve the neighborhood I live in in the US, and I also want to be conscious about how my actions affect the world, especially in places where my family lives and has it’s roots. When people think of Bangladesh and India, many times they picture royal Bengal tigers, snake charmers, and the Taj. All those things are there, but what they don’t show on travel magazines and tourism brochures are the mass mounds of garbage that you have to get through to see those tourist destinations. It’s urgent that we all do our part in being conscious about the direct impact our consumption and wastefulness has on our earth. As Americans, we are lucky to have it regularly removed. But just because we don’t see it anymore doesn’t mean it’s not there.

And as I write this post, J (the latke) is gathering and organizing all the trash and recycling from our house and placing it outside on our sidewalk where it will be collected tomorrow morning for our weekly trash pick-up. I feel so lucky. I feel everyone in the world should have this, and to be able to look outside their home and not see trash everywhere. I think about my family in Dhaka, where almost half of the city’s trash goes uncollected and I feel completely spoiled.

After my conversation with the West African man at the bar last night, I am curious to research further on this topic and I hope that I can grow awareness on the blogosphere.

Here are some ways you can do your part to help the earth:

1) educate yourself about sustainability issues both locally and globally
2) participate in community-based electronics recycling drives (check your local papers, Facebook, Craig’s List, etc.)
3) reduce, reuse, and recycle
4) compost (but do some research first and make sure you do it the right way to avoid bad smells and harmful methane gases)
5) buy foods with less packaging, like from bulk bins
6) see if you can put any pressure on your government (local and national) to be more sustainable
7) join a CSA (Community Supported Agriculture)
8) garden and grow your own food!

Some interesting related articles:
India’s Rag Pickers Compete For Lucrative Trash
Where does e-waste end up?
Is India a global trash can?
Garbage turns into gold in Bangladesh
Exporting garbage: What’s the deal with rich countries shoving all their trash to developing countries?