Long ago I took on the recycling mindset. I didn’t want to litter, and if I’m getting rid of something that’s still usable I can’t just throw it out; I have to find a place or person where it can have more purpose. Vancouver has now had curbside recycling for a number of years. Even before that I would save up items (mostly paper) and take them to the recycling depot. But then I was a book rep and would have boxes of catalogues and order forms that would get outdated.
But when I finally came to realized how much garbarge we produced, I wanted to cut down even more on what goes into the landfill so we’re not living on a giant garbage heap. In amongst all these thoughts and growing awareness, I traveled to India. India’s population wasn’t yet a billion people but it was overcrowded and impoverished. I remember coming into Calcutta and passing fields where garbage speckled the fields. The streets of Calcutta were not just filthy. They included a dead cat, feces and other items not wanted. But much was recycled. People tore up any piece of tin or cardboard or concrete sidewalk to create shanty shacks in the mediums between the roads. It was sad and startling.
The air was so thick with diesel and pollution that a handkerchief held over my nose and mouth was black in two hours. The air remained hazy and thick. When I walked to see the Taj Mahal at dawn the sky displayed an orangey rosey glow that was mostly pollution. Not only did the Ganges have a dead cow floating along, people doing laundry, ablutions and religious observances, it also had the ashes sifting down from the burning ghats where they cremated bodies. I made sure not to touch one drop of that river water and I already had dysentery.
When I arrived in Meghalaya, one of India’s seven tribal states, and more affluent than the general Hindu culture, I found pollution that was heartbreaking. The Khasis had a sacred grove of trees outside of Shillong. One day we drove up there, and it gave a great view of the city. But everywhere I looked there were plastic bags, bottles, straws and tetra packs. Another day we went to see some sites and then sat on a hillside by a waterfall. We ate our lunch, which was wrapped in banana leaves and then in plastic bags (there were no neat takeout containers). After we finished the other people tossed the banana leaves and then the plastic bags. I ran around gathering up the plastic and exclaiming, You can’t do that. It’s bad.
These people are educated. They go to school and university and drive jeeps but they had no idea about environmentalism. I triedto explain that not only is it visually unappealing but unlike the banana leaf, the bag will go into the ground, poison the earth, or a cow will eat it and then when you eat part of that cow (the Khasis are not Hindus, who don’t eat cows) you could get sick from the plastic. I simplified it but I tried to impress that they shouldn’t leave garbage in the natural environment. But they also had no form of recycling.
For much of India, it would have been fairly difficult to go up to someone and say, Don’t cut down that tree or you will have no trees at all, when that tree might be the only means for them to cook food. Seeing such destitution, filth and pollution in areas made me realize that we in North America have the luxury to recycle. It’s not that easy in a third world country where survival is your first most thought. You want shelter, security and food, and little else matters after that. In fact your full day might be taken up with finding enough food for your family. Such images fill me with despair but I try to hold out hope, from my teenage years example, that things will change for the better.
This doesn’t mean it can’t be done. It can, and when the teenage Khasis boys looked at North America and coveted the standard of living and all the trappings of popular culture that we have, then it became even more of our onus to make sure people don’t repeat the mistakes. India has rampant pollution but then Canada and the US’s shores and land are not pristine. We work at it but there is always room for improvement. You cannot deprive another society or deny them to have what you have, but you can try to show them it can be done better. Pollution and recycling isn’t just something for some people. Every person and ever nation has to do it and India’s government could at least start the ball rolling, and maybe they have. I haven’t been there in years. One thing I know is I’ll continue to try to lead by example and I have room for improvement too.