Friday, December 14, 2012

India's trash

I've been busy trying to be (and become) a science teacher, but the most important environmental experience I've had recently was a trip to India with the Oberlin College Alumni Association. This was my first experience of a non-European or North American country, although I've been on a couple of week-long trips to Mexico.
The very first thing we noticed when we left the airport was what smelled like wood-smoke in the air. I think that's why Indian women cover their faces with their scarves! Sometimes it was unbearable, but the guide just took it in stride. He did admit that there is a terrible problem with asthma in India.
I had read an article about how an environmental organization was trying to get rural Indians to tame the methane from cow manure to make natural gas to cook on, so I assumed that the smell was from burning wood - or dried cow dung - for cooking.
Varanasi by day at Ganges (6)
Kali as trash in the Ganges
But I think the largest source of the smoke was from burning small piles of trash on the streets and along sidewalks everywhere - in Delhi and Mumbai as well as in villages.
We did hear about a trash collection system in Dharamsala, and were shown the dump even, but when I asked our driver what to do with the water bottles (another problem!) that had collected in the car, he just threw them on the growing pile on the sidewalk next to our hotel!
In Varanasi we saw the results of thousands of paper mache images of the god Kali dumped into the river as an offering - along with other trash and, of course, remains from the funeral pyres.
Mumbai scenes (40)
Trash collection in Mumbai
In Mumbai we actually saw a garbage truck, but there were no cans to lift into it, just shoveling by hand.
Agra to Sikri (15)
Cows lying in trash along the road
I think earlier the trash caused little problem because it was either edible (by the ubiquitous cows or dogs) or biodegradable, so it became dirt. The cow dung even now is gathered up to provide fuel for cooking.  The real problem now is all the plastic trash, which does not biodegrade. I see few bottles here in the trash, because they are collected, washed and reused to sell water (which may not really be potable, as I said, another story.)
Uttar Pradesh countryside (13)
Trash in a village pond
Even small ponds get filled with the plastic trash, like a mini Pacific garbage patch.
My fellow travelers have said that this is typical in all the third world countries they visited - but India is trying to be first world. But when the trash problem is just as evident in Mumbai as in small villages, it has an enormous problem to manage. We were told that the job of collecting trash was often appointed and paid by the city council, but no one bothered to check up on whether it was being done.
Trash not only clogs the water ways, but, most importantly in India, causes constant smog that results in asthma among a large percentage of the children, in the cities as well as the countryside. The problem is not just stopping people from cutting down trees for fuel, but to solve the exponentially growing problem of  plastic trash.

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