Talking Garbage

new internationalist
issue 230 - April 1992

The best wrapping of all: leaves.
Talking garbage
Lasanda Kurukulasuriya takes a Sri Lankan view of recyclomania.

'Reduce! Re-use! Recycle!' The message hits Canadian consumers through all the media, including - ironically enough - the junk mail. 'Don't use all those plastic bags! Don't choke fruit and vegetables with plastic! Buy loose!'

As newcomers from Sri Lanka we try to absorb the barrage and we compare it with the situation back home. We may not be the most environmentally concerned citizens in the world. But compared with this we do not have a garbage problem - yet.

Like many shoppers in Colombo, my partner Shahid and I used to have a cane basket we took along with us to the Sunday fair or pola every week. No environmentalist could have complained about it. I liked that basket in a way I could not possibly have liked a plastic bag. My cat liked it too, and I had a tough time keeping him from sleeping in it.

You need a good sturdy basket at the pola. There are no supermarket carts to push around. Most items - rice, flour, lentils, vegetables, fruit, biscuits, eggs - are bought loose or wrapped in newspaper. If you want a plastic bag you usually have to pay for it. At most we would carry one plastic bag separately. For eggs we took a reusable plastic tray along with us.

Sri Lankan children still carry reusable, litter-free plastic drink bottles to school. The obnoxious 'Tetra-Pak', that square juice pack with a layer of aluminium inside, a layer of plastic outside and cardboard in between, has yet to make its appearance. Coca Cola, Fanta and Sprite have all but usurped the local competition in the soft drink industry, but reusable glass bottles are still very much the norm. When income levels are low, people need to buy in small quantities - large, two-litre plastic containers don't move fast enough. It is quite normal to ask for a single envelope or cigarette, two eggs or 100 grams of sugar at the ubiquitous 'boutiques' that thrive on every street corner.

Neither a vendor nor a householder likes to feel short-changed for want of a little power of persuasion. There was an orange seller who dropped by our home every so often. Even before he walked through the gate he would announce his - astronomical - opening price, complete with an explanation: unique quality, absolute scarcity, market fluctuations and so on.

Walking into the shade he would place his basket on the ground, taking his time, mopping his brow - to await the usual response. 'Are you out of your mind?' would be his next reaction. 'No oranges today. No time. We are leaving now.' Then came a protracted debate on the size, shape, colour, sweetness, juiciness and any other special features of the oranges present, with cross references to oranges past, their relative worth in rupees and cents.

During the course of this weighty business either party might at any time take a break to gaze at the sky, swear at the heat or bow the head to ponder on the eternal verities of life. As the final price drew near our vendor would magnanimously drop the price a full 50 cents and voilà! a sale would be made.

The point is that, for the most part, middle class urban consumers in Sri Lanka still cannot afford the luxury of waste. Most people do not buy more from the grocers than they know they will actually consume. They reuse whatever they can and are loath to discard bags, jars, tins or boxes that can be put to other uses. Colombo's poshest gardens are still manured with cattle dung, compost and used tea leaves.

There is no equivalent in Colombo to Toronto's 'blue-box' programme for recycling paper. But most people save newspaper anyway, to be sold to the 'paper man' - an institution as old as newspapers themselves. The 'paper man' disturbs your Sunday afternoon with his unintelligible cry (it means 'Papers, bottles!') as he strolls down the road balancing a neatly-folded bag on his head. Tucked in at the waist of his sarong is a metal scale, which he uses to weigh the papers in lots on your doorstep. Empty bottles are valued on a case-by-case basis. The 50 or 100 rupees you might make on the deal is easily enough to take you to the movies. The paper man sells to wholesale traders, who in turn sell to the 'boutiques', which use it to wrap the items they sell.

I don't want to give a false impression of a cozy, picture-perfect, small-town paradise. Environment is a sorely neglected issue in Sri Lanka. Colombo does have a garbage disposal problem. But it is largely caused, I suspect, by municipal inefficiency rather than the volume of garbage. Excess packaging has not reached anything like the proportions of the crisis in North America.

But in recent years Western-style supermarkets have begun to spring up in Colombo. They hold out the promise of clean, efficient, streamlined - and impersonal - service to customers. A range of imported products, dressed up in their layers of attractive, colourful packaging, beckons from the shelves. These are the very products that demand your attention on the TV advertisements. Along with them Sri Lanka, like so many other developing countries, may have imported a problem that once never existed.

For the time being the big supermarkets are places where only the elite can shop. The over-riding need for thrift and economy prevents middle-class consumers from patronizing them. Soon, though, supermarket shopping may well become the order of the day in the cities. Then it can only be a matter of time before Sri Lanka has to appeal to some Western government for aid so that it can develop techniques for environmentally-friendly product packaging.

Lasanda Kurukulasuriya is a Sri Lankan journalist currently living in Canada.


Portrait of a revolutionary
She's in trouble again. Wangari Maathai is the Kenyan
Green Belt activist who won't shut up - on anyone's orders.

Green Belt activist, Wangari Maathai.

Wangari Maathai is not one to mince words. She recently told a meeting packed with distinguished Africans, diplomats and international development experts: 'Many leaders have been unaccountable to their people, have stolen from their people by partly diverting aid loans and other resources into personal fortunes.'

Such boldness has earned her a reputation as a trouble-maker at home in Kenya. She was the first woman in black Africa to gain a PhD and the first Kenyan woman professor at the University of Nairobi. But when she tried to run for political office the ruling party would not accept her as a candidate. Then the university would not have her back - and nor would anyone else.

Living from her savings she worked as a volunteer for the National Council of Women in Kenya encouraging professional women to work with rural women. It was then that the link between women and the environment became apparent to her.

Rural women spend most of their time travelling long distances to fetch increasingly scarce water and firewood. Their land is poor and they grow crops like tea and coffee to sell on international markets, rather than food. Prices are so low they cannot feed their families. Maathai organized women to plant trees for firewood. She paid them for each tree that survived - personal income for them, when traditionally only men touched the family's money.

That was in 1977, and it was the beginning of the Green Belt Movement, which has so far planted 10 million trees. Now she devotes all her time to it and aims to start a Pan-African movement. Maathai has also been active in the urban environment. When the City Commission in Nairobi proposed to allow construction on the site of Jeevanjee Gardens, Maathai encouraged people to speak out against it and organized a meeting between the public and developers. The project was eventually cancelled.

She has also campaigned to save Uhuru Park - the most important open space in downtown Nairobi - from being turned into an office complex, conference centre and shopping mall.

'I'm not opposed to development,' she says. 'But development that plunders resources like forests, land, air and food, oblivious of the needs of tomorrow, is short-sighted and self-defeating.'

Some politicians said it was un-African for a woman to stand up and answer back when men talked. In January she was detained, then released on bail, charged with 'publishing false rumours'. But Maathai has never stopped talking and writing. 'Unless people speak out and demand environmentally sustainable cities,' she says, 'our children will be condemned to the concrete, unhealthy jungles typical of many unplanned, overcrowded and polluted cities of other countries.'

There has been a price to pay for the Uhuru project controversy. Developers closed the Green Belt offices. Maathai now works from home. Apart from two rooms where she and her youngest son live, the house has been given over to office space.

'People in Northern countries who give aid don't know when the aid is not reaching the people,' she says. 'And the working people don't know aid borrowed in their name is stolen by their leaders and that they are paying for it.'

Unfairness and hypocrisy anger her, as when Northerners pay next to nothing for crops but charge high prices for pesticides to grow them. She says people love to blame the victims, accusing Africans of not working hard enough and not knowing what they are doing. 'But those people are working. They get up at five in the morning and work 'till late at night and don't know why things are so bad.

'At 50 I know I have maybe another 20 active years,' she says. 'Before anything happens to me I want to know that the seeds have' really been planted, that things will carry on changing.'

Her ideas are being put to the test more quickly than she may have feared. An active member of the opposition Forum group, she had been on hunger strike with other women in Uhuru Park, pressing for the release of political prisoners. On 4th March she was clubbed unconcious by police and, as we go to press, is reported to be in a critical condition in hospital in Nairobi.

Interviewed by Gillian Forrester and Patrick Isaack of the Gemini News Service.

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