A Tough Perspective
In Friday’s post, I explained why I love traveling. It can broaden horizons and show you new perspectives. Sometimes though, this new perspective can be hard to accept. It challenges your existing view of the world, and opens your eyes to the ugly parts. But that’s the beauty of it.
What we saw at the Bandung city dump was unlike anything I had seen before. It horrified me, but at the same time, it clarified in my mind the innate link between our environmental problems caused by overconsumption and our humanitarian problems caused by poverty…
We woke up at the crack of dawn, donned our mandatory rubber boots and rain jackets, and met in the lobby to catch a bus to embark on our adventure…but of course, our bus ended up arriving an hour late! When we finally hit the road, it was a short but winding trip to the city dump, on the outskirts of town. During the ride, our trusty committee members handed out rubber gloves and surgical masks to protect us against what we were about to encounter. We pulled up at the dump behind a huge trash truck, piled high with everything from decomposing food to old furniture. The truck turned into the entrance of the dump to get rid of its load, and we pulled off to the side of the road to park. It was drizzling outside.
One by one, we climbed down the stairs of the charter bus, armed with masks, gloves, rain jackets and boots.
Within seconds of stepping off the bus, the smell overpowered us. The humidity from the rain only intensified it. My senses went into shock at first, and I felt like I was going to vomit. As I acclimated, I could begin to decipher the wall of odor. The most prominent smell reminded me of manure. Under that, I could smell feet, body odor, rancid meat, rotten eggs, mildew…you name it, I smelled it. I was careful to keep my mouth closed, because the odors were offensive enough in my nostrils – I didn’t want to know what they might taste like.
Once we were all unloaded, we moved as a pack toward the entrance of the dump. We looked like scientists ready to enter a chamber housing a highly contagious virus. We paused at the weigh station, where dump trucks checked in to have their loads recorded.
One of our professors translated as one of the workers explained that trucks collected trash from all over the city and brought it here.
Hundreds of tons per day. After each truck was weighed, it added it’s load to the already enormous piles of we saw before us.
We trudged onward, and it was what we saw next that truly surprised us.
Lining the road into the dump were makeshift houses.
And inside those houses were people.
Families. Mothers, fathers, children, chickens.
I was saddened and confused at the same time. These people didn’t seem unhappy. The children laughed and played. They threw balls, they ate corn on the cob. They ran around the dump without a care in the world.
And without shoes.
Here we were, decked out in tall rubber boots, face masks and gloves, trying to ensure we didn’t pick up any illnesses from our educational visit. And they ran barefoot.
Many of the workers wore shoes — but they were flip flops or flimsy slip-ons, mostly. As we continued our tour, we learned that much of the sorting at the dump was done by hand.
Recyclables and other solids were sorted from organic material. And then everything was transported to be processed.
The workers were paid a fair wage, and they had a short commute, but the things they faced every day were far from ideal. A stench that almost made me vomit. Piles of disease-ridden trash everywhere you turn. Mud floors. Old blankets patching holes in tin roofs.
At the end of the visit, one of the students offered his rubber boots to one of the workers who was wearing flip flops. The man gratefully accepted. Another student planned to launch a Kickstarter project to help the families build sturdy, sanitary homes.
An experience like this is like a splash of cold water to the face. It wakes you up to the problems that surround us. You can either forget about it and move on, or you can try to do something change it.
Bandung has been dealing with it’s trash problem. As the city becomes more affluent and more people move in, the trash piles higher and higher. There’s only so much space for all the trash that is produced, so something has to be done. Recycling and processing the waste is a step in the right direction, but it’s not there yet.
I’ll admit: waste management is not my area of expertise. I can’t draft a formal plan to solve the waste problem in Bandung – or anywhere, for that matter. However, I do know that we can do more.
It starts with lowering consumption, on the consumer and producer levels. Consumers can make an effort to upcycle things they no longer need, and purchase better quality items so that they last longer than a year or two. Companies can limit packaging waste by reclaiming and reusing the necessary, and eliminating the unnecessary. Consumers can make small changes like reusing and recycling as much as possible, or bringing canvas grocery bags to the store. Buy only what you need so that food isn’t rotting and going to waste. Stop buying “snack-sized” items that use twice as much packaging as a large bag. Stop buying – and promptly discarding – reusable water bottles, juice bottles, soda cans. Producers can stop wrapping fresh produce in plastic, when nature has already wrapped it for us. These things may seem insignificant, but just consider how much trash we would eliminate if everyone got on board. If there’s less trash to deal with, that’s half the battle.
I’m not saying these small steps will solve the world’s problems. And it alone certainly won’t help these people move from a shack in the dump to a sanitary home. But it’s a start. And that’s better than nothing.
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