Apr 23, 2014

Earth Day

Technically, Earth Day was yesterday, but I was doing a story about illegal dumping in a Halifax public park so I didn't have time to write this. Yes, happy Earth Day indeed.

I've been drawn to a few stories with similar themes lately - like this one I covered about one man who questioned why the Halifax recycling guide was mailed in a plastic wrapper. Or this woman who attempted to stop buying things with plastic on them, and found it was harder than she thought.

I'd like to tell you another India story (yes, another - I know it's long gone but as other travellers warned me, it takes a while to process the things you learned).

They sweep the streets constantly in India. Shopkeepers or street sweepers or children, they sweep leaves and trash to the gutters and make piles. Most of the trash in the pile is plastic. And at the end of the day, or when the piles get too big, they burn them. You see little burning trash piles all along the street, giving off black black smoke and a nasty smell.

Anyway, you may remember Saraswati, the lady who taught me about clay cups of chai in Varanasi. Well, we had a few cups of chai together, and most of them were in clay cups, but at least one round was served in tiny plastic cups. Those plastic cups are so thin they crinkle when you pick them up. There's no integrity at all to them. They are built to serve tea once, and that's it. They practically melt the first time the hot liquid hits them. After she drank her tea, I watched Saraswati throw her plastic cup on the ground casually, exactly as she would throw down the clay cup. She didn't think twice about it. I drained my plastic cup and put it in my pocket, thinking I would dispose of it in the trash can in my hotel room.

I did this for a couple of days after landing in India: carefully saving my trash and dropping it in the bucket in my room. Then it hit me: You IDIOT. Where do you think the trash can in your room is going? It's all going to the same burning pile, you dope.

It seems so obvious now, looking back. Maybe you, too, are wondering why I didn't see the answer immediately.

We've been taught since childhood that we should all follow the three Rs: reduce, reuse, and recycle. Reduce and reuse come first for a reason, but somehow we got hung up on the idea that "recycle" is the most important. As if blue boxes and source separation would solve all our trash problems. That if we just dropped our used cell phones and TVs off at the recycling depot all things would be okay

Of course I'm not arguing that we should stop trying and wantonly throw chai cups any old place. But as long as we keep buying and using all this STUFF, nothing changes. As embarrassing as it was, now I wish I could share that moment with more people: where I felt suddenly humbled, when I realized that I'd been thinking of myself as more eco-conscious than everyone else around me - and then I discovered I was the same idiot I've always been.

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