Saturday, June 6, 2009


Every morning with my host family in Baan Jow Mai, I would get up and stumble off to the back deck for my first shower of the day. The back deck is raised on stilts above a channel where the tides come and go. If you look through the cracks in the back of the bathroom wall, branches of the mangrove forest that back up the house are at eye level. The prop roots of this mangrove forest are twisted and souped in garbage. The channel is the neighborhood garbage dump.

From our first night in Trang Province, trash was a striking presence. Every coastline we had the pleasure to visit was full of dumped or washed up bottles, Styrofoam, light bulbs, shoes, bags-- any and every kind of discarded item. After seeing my family's attitude toward dumping in the channel, the amount of trash we saw on the beach no longer surprises me.

What did surprise me was when the recycling guy came by a few days into my home stay. I had not noticed the huge bags of recyclables laying around in the yard. The recycling guy pulled out a big scale to weigh the plastics, aluminum, glass, and broken sheets of tin roofing offered by my Ma. He tossed all the stuff in the back of his truck and handed Ma 100 Baht. My family says he comes once or twice a month, so they save up materials to earn a little extra cash. The recycling guy told me he drives the stuff to Pattani and it is then taken to Bangkok.

I didn't ask specifically, but I get the feeling Ma was recycling for the money and not out of a sense of the need to conserve resources. Recycling can be incredibly lucrative. In NYC, the mafia is tied up in the garbage/recycling business. During the recent economic recession, though, recycling programs were one of the first things dropped in municipalities around America. The materials were being treated as a commodity, rather than a moral imperative. Programs were dropped as soon as the value of the commodity plummeted and recycling became a money-sucker rather than a money-maker. I imagine the recycling guy in Jow Mai would stop driving around the province collecting recyclables if money were not involved.

What options do we have for our waste? Nothing seems ideal. Ocean dumping, landfills, incineration-- all have major drawbacks. Even recycling could be deemed problematic because of the massive amount of energy required to reprocess materials. An oft-cited solution is to replace packaging and containers with biodegradable materials made from corn or other crops, but this has its own set of problems like the proliferation of monocropping. There's little chance we will do away with garbage altogether, especially with the health codes in the U.S. that require food and other items to be sealed and packaged in certain ways. Of course, packaging isn't the only problem. We live in a world full of cheap stuff that constantly breaks and is often cheaper to replace than to fix. The huge number of cheap, broken plastic shoes we saw on the beaches is testament to this.

I'm not sure what the answer to the waste problem is. But I do know that I cannot judge the disposal methods of my Jow Mai host family because tossing stuff in the channel may actually be no worse than any other form of disposal.

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