New Internationalist

Garbage blues

Issue 384

I’m sitting in an elegant coffee bar in Tokyo talking to my friend Chihiro. It’s an unlikely place to be discussing garbage but that’s the subject on her mind. A professor of political science at a prestigious university, Chihiro has just come back from a ‘corrective class’ – a couple of hours of enforced watching of videos and listening to lectures about garbage. It’s her punishment for not following Japan’s new rules on household waste.

It’s time she can ill afford to lose. Chihiro leads a high pressure life – lecturing at two universities, researching, publishing, organizing seminars, bringing up two young daughters, running a household. Her husband, also an academic, helps out. But even so, the burden is squarely hers.

The city of Yokohama, where Chihiro lives, has recently set up a new garbage disposal system. Homeowners are responsible for separating their garbage at source. But it’s not just tin cans and paper. There’s also glass and cloth and compost and, and, and… I can’t even get my head around all the categories.

Chihiro tells me she’s now required to separate things according to the new categories, then deliver the packets on given days, at given time, to a central point from where they are collected. Every day of the week is marked for one kind of disposal or other. Miss a day and you have to wait a whole week. Worse, you can’t really leave garbage festering outside (even if it doesn’t fester, you can’t leave it there; it may blow up, emit annoying smells, or just ruin the landscape…) and so you are obliged to keep it inside the house.

Chihiro lives in a tiny flat. There isn’t room to house mountains of garbage, even if it is only a week’s worth of newspapers (they get four or five a day). So, with the new rules her house is bursting at the seams with ‘stuff’. It’s imperative that she get it to the collection point on time, but she’s helpless. Mornings are hectic: wake the two girls, prepare their lunch, run them to school, come back, run her husband to the train station, come back, clean up, get herself together, run to the station, an hour to class… and so on. There isn’t a morning when she can easily make it. Or, more accurately, she may just be able to make it. She doesn’t really have the time to load the garbage into her car, then join the queue to unload it at the dump. But missed deadlines mean ‘corrective classes’ – and she shudders to think of what missed corrective classes may lead to.

Chihiro finds the extra burden of managing the family garbage oppressive. She’s stressed and depressed. She feels she can’t cope.

She doesn't really have the time to load the garbage into her car, then join the queue to unload it at the dump. But missed deadlines mean 'corrective classes' - and she shudders to think of what missed corrective classes may lead to

I find it mystifying. This is Japan, I remind myself, one of the richest countries in the world. Is this what ‘development’ is all about? If so maybe we’re better off in India where we don’t yet have sophisticated garbage disposal rules – garbage is too valuable to waste and recycling is part of the informal economy. Old newspapers are fashioned into paper bags, tin cans are hammered into electric stoves, plastic bottles are used to collect water or store kerosene, coconut husks scrub dishes, old rags are sewn into carrier bags…

But then, I stop myself. This is not a constructive way to think. This isn’t about India and Japan or the Third World and First World. This is about the lives and lifestyles we are creating for ourselves and the detritus we leave behind. It’s about learning to cope with the consequences of acquiring more things which are supposed to make life easier. When water started to come out of bottles rather than the tap, we were delighted because now we could carry those bottles around. Until we were faced with the problem of what to do with the empties. On Indian trains they tell you to destroy the bottles, but most Indians find it difficult to destroy things that can be re-used. So they leave them behind and the scavengers pick them up, fill them with ordinary water, seal them and sell them all over again. Recycling yes; but pure water, no. It’s no use romanticizing ourselves just because a culture that’s largely poor will find ways to re-use things.

I haven’t stopped thinking of Chihiro’s story since I left her. It comes back to me every day as I step out of my home and the garbage collection rickshaw comes round. I watch as two men separate plastic from paper and cardboard from tin – low castes, for who else can handle garbage in this country?

I wonder how long before we go the Japan route? Lifestyles are changing rapidly here too. A growing middle class in India is generating more waste every day. Sure, we recycle more before it ever reaches the dump. But can we congratulate ourselves that our system is ‘better’?

I don’t think so; not when it’s just another way of hiding poverty and masking oppression. Instead we need to realize that waste can never be someone else’s problem. It’s not about the man or woman who takes the garbage away. It’s about us; you and me, as individuals. But even more than that, it’s about all of us, collectively. If we don’t put our heads together as a society, whether in Japan or India or elsewhere, we’ll end up literally buried in our own garbage. •

Urvashi Butalia is an Indian writer and publisher. She lives in New Delhi.

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