When my young friend Hamza built his electric cars, he procured the material from local recycling shops. This network of recyclers is a remarkable process quite unlike anything we see in the West.
In America we took our recyclable material to large depots in industrial zones. Here in the majority world those depots tend to be within slums, and the recycled material reaches them through a great deal more sweat.
Poor children referred to as “ragpickers” comb the streets and trashbins of the city looking for anything that can be salvaged. Men ride rickshaws up and down city streets, calling out, “Recycling! Recycling!” and paying middle-class homes token sums to take unwanted items off their hands. Truck drivers trace routes around business districts collecting shredded paper waste from offices and empty glass bottles from cafes.
One way or another the ragpickers, recycling men, and truck drivers end up at the recycling shops, where their finds are weighed and money is paid out. But the process doesn’t end there. Most of the goods are not in condition to bring to the recycling plants, and so more work needs to be done.
Electrical wires are distributed among local slum households where stay-at-home moms strip out the copper for a few pennies. Older women and their granddaughters sit among giant piles of shredded paper and painstakingly separate the colored pieces. Young men break down old refrigerators and tear the insulation off the metal. Motors are dismantled, glass bottles are sorted. In a best case scenario an old bicycle or table fan will be repaired and sold again for its original purpose (this is where Peregrine got her own bike).
This intense human effort goes a long way towards wringing every last bit of salvageable material out of the city’s trash. When the usable components are fully sorted, large trucks come by and pay a fair bit of cash to take the stuff to the nearest processing plant, where it is melted down into raw material for new goods.
And yet, in the midst of all this energy…our slum is still covered in plastic.
Useful contraptions can be reused, wood can be burned, paper can be reconstituted and metal can be melted down. But few plastics are recyclable in any practical sense.
As recently as the 1970s it may have been difficult to find plastic in the slum, and it certainly would have been rarely seen in the villages. But with the advent of multinationals marketing single-serving goods to the poor, plastic is now king. Kids beg their parents for a couple rupees to buy toffees or chips in tiny plastic wrappers, which are ripped open and thrown to the ground. The same fate is in store for the 1-rupee shampoo packages and 3-rupee pouches of tobacco their parents buy. Local street vendors serve their wares in styrofoam cups and every fruit and vegetable purchase is placed in a plastic bag.
None of this makes it to the recyclers. And the city does not provide any trash service to the slum. So instead these plastics litter the ground, litter the road, fill the empty lots that serve as de facto dumps on three sides of our neighborhood. During the cold season the poorest people will burn plastic for warmth, loading the air with toxins that have helped our city become among the worst in air quality in the world. But what isn’t burned, just accumulates. Six years ago Peregrine broke her kneecap when slipping on a wet plastic bag on the ground. Yet another downside to having more trash than anyone knows what to do with.
What is the end point? Plastic only became king in the last few decades, and yet its refuse already dominates the landscape. The rivers are filled, the forests are filled, the oceans are filled. So long as fossil fuels are cheap, more plastic will be cheaply produced and cheaply wasted. And no one seems to know what to do.
Two weeks ago I reflected on this and realized that I couldn’t keep contributing to the mess. I began a self-imposed ban on one-use plastics. If an ice cream or candy bar comes in a plastic wrapper, I won’t buy it. If a food or drink is served in a plastic cup or bowl, I won’t purchase it unless I’ve brought my own container. Whenever possible I buy spices, lentils, and other such goods in bulk rather than pre-packaged. I was already bringing my own cloth bags to stores rather than taking plastic ones, but now am more vigilant about it. I refuse all plastic straws, spoons, etc.
It’s a very small step. But it’s a first step I think I need. Because I see the plastic all around me, doing harm to the Earth and to my neighbors in every stage of its life. And I don’t want to be part of the problem anymore.