Trashing it

“This reminds me of a story I read on the net. Garbage collectors in Ankara, Turkey, have opened a public library comprised entirely of books once thrown away and destined for the landfills”

I walk every evening along a serpentine road skirting a hill. It’s quiet, shady, with a view of the city spread out down below. There is very little traffic and the air is pure enough to safely breathe in deeply. In such peaceful solitude, the mind sinks into a dream-like trance, memories wake to life, the soullessness of urban life is forgotten and the spirit soars blithely among the trees.

If this sounds too good to be true, you are right. My spot of green heaven is changing even as I write this. Blocks of ugly, half-built apartment building blocks are coming up on the slopes. Loud-voiced labourers of unidentified origin shout raucously above the drone of drilling machines. Bricks, stones, iron rods, sacks of cement lie by the roadside. In a year or two, families will move in, cars will glide to and fro, horns tooting, making me tense as I walk. And the worst fear I have is of garbage thrown carelessly into any open space, putrid dumps that will emit a stench which will sear you to the core of your being. My tranquil thoughts transform into a mood of foreboding.

Then I meet her. A little girl in pigtails, vest and shorts wriggles by the side of her grandmother as they sit on a cement pillar by the roadside. I tickle her chin, ask her name and try to make eye contact. She buries her face in her grandmother’s lap. I feel a small twinge of disappointment.

This goes on for a few days. Then, one day, when I least expect it, she trills and toddles towards me, arms outstretched. We hug and she finally tells me her name. Isha.

“Is it alright if I give her chocolates?” I ask the grandma.

“Sure,” she gives a toothless smile.

So, there I am, meeting her again, this time with a bar of chocolate. She grabs it from me with her podgy little fingers and is soon tearing the packet with her teeth. I get a warm, fuzzy feeling. But it doesn’t last for long. The sight of that chocolate wrapper on the side of the road makes me profoundly uneasy. I too am culpable. If I am to indulge little Isha this way, there will soon be a mound of empty candy wrappers in my green heaven. What have I done?

As a Sixties’ child, I go dewy-eyed at the mention of Woodstock – that iconic festival of free love and music. But, when Woodstock ended, about 700 acres of garbage was left behind on farmer Max Yasgur’s farm. It took over 400 volunteers and 100 thousand dollars to remove it all. Idealism often comes with a smelly aftermath.

The binary of modern capitalist society is produce and consume. We produce more than we need and consume in a kind of mindless frenzy that is greedy, grasping and forever unfulfilled. My elderly aunt is very happy with her new Chinese phone because the moment it conks out, she can just throw it away and get a new one, e-waste be damned. Our consumerist society looks like it is going to choke on the garbage it generates. Land that could have been used to grow trees, vegetables, flowers or crops are being used as landfills. Citizens and governments blame each other. Consumers cheerfully pay for the plastic packet in malls. The price is no deterrence. Then, a word about the food delivery companies that are falling over each other to enable us to have restaurant food at home and work with frictionless ease. The food comes in plastic containers, plastic dishes, wrapped up in cellophane. After we eat, it’s a struggle coping with all the garbage we have generated. So there you have it – conscience vs convenience.

Every time you pass a garbage bin, don’t you see women and children working  through  the trash for bottles, cardboard boxes and anything that can be recycled? We think of these people as garbage, whereas, the truth be told, they are performing a useful task. This reminds me of a story I read on the net. Garbage collectors in Ankara, Turkey, have opened a public library comprised entirely of books once thrown away and destined for the landfills. It all started when sanitation workers started collecting discarded books. As news of the collection spread, residents donated books they were meaning to get rid of. Today the library, inaugurated by the Mayor, has 6,000 books, ranging from literature to non-fiction, children’s books to works of scientific research. People who used to dump their books on sidewalks now carry them to the library. It has become a popular haunt for people of all ages.

Creative people can extract value out of trash. Remember the movie Wall-E? Centuries into the future, the Earth is a bleak, garbage strewn place where the only denizen seems to be Wall-E (short for Waste Allocation Load Lifter-Earth Class). Wall-E comes across an egg-shaped robot left behind by a spaceship. She is Eve and she  is sleek and stunning. Love blooms but she hurtles back to mankind’s current home – a spaceship named Axiom. This is where humans float on personal hovercrafts, interact via screen phones and have grown so fast that they have forgotten how to walk. Wall-E follows Eve to Axiom, and unlashes a chain of events that change mankind. For children, Wall-E is a cute robot. For adults, this future dystopic scenario – especially the scale of the garbage, seems frighteningly probable.

Last month I was  reading Katharine Boo’s Pulitzer-winning novel Behind the Beautiful Forevers. Memorable characters live in the Mumbai slum of Annawadi. There’s Abdul the garbage sorter, who sustains his family of 13 by selling recycled items to a recycling factory. Another young boy Sunil realizes how a better future is beyond reach for others like him. A high wall has been built to hide the slum from international airport’s rich international passengers. Writing about families teetering on the brink of nowhere, Boo reveals one of the 21st century’s hidden worlds.

Indeed, the future is not just about flying cars and finding the secret to human immortality. Now, the vision should also include how to lessen the garbage before it swallows us up. In fact, the good thing about dying is that it is only then that you finally stop generating trash. Think about it.

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