Waste Not Want Not

By: Carson Chambers and Zoe Sirivejachipan

Since we’ve been in Thailand, we’ve experienced a wide array of subcultures within the country.  Within each unique area, we have been exposed to a variety of subtle differences and similarities.   All humans have to deal with the not-so-glamorous issue of waste – what do we qualify as waste?  How do we dispose of it?  How will it affect one’s culture and environment?  So far we’ve been to two different rural villages, the big city of Bangkok and a tourist island and how waste is dealt with.

I first started to notice the differences in how the people of Kalasin deal with trash after breakfast on our first day.  We (the Westminster crew) ate, left some trash scattered around, piled our plates with plenty of leftover food scraps, and started talking about plans for the day.  But what was going to happen to the plastic bottles, left over scrambled egg and oatmeal packets?  In the United States, once our trash is in a garbage can, it’s taken care of and out of our lives.  But what about in Kalasin where there are no landfills, garbage trucks or recycling centers?

After helping the local women with the dishes, I learned that not much food goes to waste in Kalasin – all scraps are given to farm animals and dogs.  This was the same case in Bon Nam Hom, an even more remote and lower socio-economic village.  Not only did scraps get put to good use, but objects were reused.  We brought them big tin boxes full of cookies and when they are emptied, they’ll be used for food storage, beehives for honey or multipurpose containers.  The villagers’ whole mentality about waste and indulgence is so different from most Americans’ – during the morning prayer the students give thanks for their food for they know others are not as fortunate and they must finish everything on their plate.

These villages have been sustained for years without the man-made materials upon which America so heavily relies.  We were shown homes, mushroom huts and cooking utensils that were made entirely from natural, biodegradable resources, mostly bamboo.  These resources are readily available and entirely sustainable.  What is causing a problem now is the introduction of more Western culture and goods.  With more imported products that are wrapped in plastic, covered in foil or packed in Styrofoam, there seems to be an inability to “get rid” of waste.  When we walked around Bon Nam Hom, there were piles of wrappers scattered in between the houses.  We even saw people throwing their trash into the neighboring river.

For being a big, modern, industrialized city, Bangkok’s streets have appeared remarkably un-littered.  There is very little trash on the ground as compared to many U.S. cities.  However, it’s nearly impossible to find a garbage can let alone a recycling bin.  How can the city maintain clean streets without a lot of waste disposal receptacles?  Where does the trash in Bangkok end up?  What’s the recycling system like?  After the few days we’ve spent there, we still have many unanswered questions about how they deal with trash and what the general mentality is about waste.

In the U.S. there has been such a big movement to get more recycling and the cut back on plastics – going green is the big thing right now.  But are we really “going green?”  Is recycling your plastic water bottle everyday really ecologically sustainable?  What about the millions, if not billions, of pounds of food waste we generate everyday?  Perhaps Americans should reexamine what sustainability really means – staring by looking at how the villagers in Kalasin and Bon Nam Hom traditionally live and how Western influences have disrupted that delicate balance.

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