In nearly every country we have visited, perhaps with the exception of Russia, one reoccurring theme has been how badly people treat their own country with regards to rubbish waste. Mongolia, China, Myanmar and India are all countries with very different levels of wealth, terrain, political systems, and standards of education, but this same issue is a huge problem in all of them.
Most locals will throw anything anywhere, but it is not as simple as educating people why this is bad, because we also realised there usually isn’t anywhere else for them to put it all. Government and local councils actually need to provide waste infrastructure for people to use. I laughed out loud in Bangalore train station when I turned around to look for a bin, and there was actually one right in front of me. The usual routine begins with a 1 minute stroll around a 50m radius, asking a shop keeper for a bin, an unidentifiable circular head roll from said shop keeper, who will finally point at the curb, instructing me to put it in the road next to other piles of rubbish.
India has been dirty, no two ways about it. A young boy on a train once asked me for my rubbish, which I was "storing" underneath my seat because no bins were provided. I mistakenly thought he wanted to keep the plastic and the aluminium foil to sell on, but he then told me he just wants to throw it out the window. He spent a good few minutes trying to persuade me to hand it over, which I refused. He was a really nice boy, very smiley, very friendly, but just thinks it’s fun to throw stuff out a moving train. Admittedly I look a bit weird stuffing rubbish into my bag to take off the train with me, but you can wait a long time searching for a bin here. There is neither the infrastructure or the education here to deal with this problem. There are some signs telling people not to do it, but everybody does, adults and kids alike.
Although rich countries generate far more waste than poor countries (Hong Kong residents produce 11 pounds of waste per citizen per day, compared to 1 pound per Indian citizen), the amount of waste India produces is expected to increase by 500% by 2047. One young worker who served food on a train explained, “That is just how it is done. If we throw it outside, someone will eventually pick it up or burn the rubbish … What do we do with it if not?”. India spends $67 million per year on railway maintenance, due to problems such as track corrosion from toilet waste released onto the lines. That is why India is on track to become the largest waste producer in the world.
Given the size of Mongolia and how sparcely populated it is, I can appreciate how difficult it is to provide the infrastructure, but to see how this stunning empty landscape is being mistreated is such a shame. The amount of rubbish compared to the amount of people around is staggering in some places. It looks like village’s rubbish has built up for years untouched.
In the deserted Mongolian steppe, with thousands of kilometres of nothing in every direction, we would suddenly come across huge piles of rubbish that had merely been hidden behind a mound of earth. When venturing down to the ice-cold river, we would find piles of empty and smashed beer and vodka bottles from the previous night’s raucous drinking session. Tourists are not averse to a drinking session, but judging from the number of vodka bottles, my money was on it being Mongolian locals. Most normal people cannot drink that.
The historically nomadic people never had to worry too much about rubbish as nearly everything they used was biodegradable, and animals would generally eat any food waste. Only since half the population moved into the city Ulaanbaatar in the 1990s has the issue of plastic waste become so great, but people have not changed their nomadic instincts of just throwing things outside and burning it if need be. There are also no landfill sites in the country, so everything is just burned in the hills surrounding the city.
China is somehow both the best and worst offender, providing far more bins and having very cheery local rubbish collection vans which plays songs out loudspeakers to alert the locals to come outside and chuck their rubbish bags in the back. It has improved markedly since my last visit 6 years ago, especially around Beijing and other tourist hotspots. The standard of toilets and cleanliness has changed dramatically, even in Beijing’s notoriously dirty hutongs. This in itself is one of those stupid tourist dilemmas where you temporarily begrudge the locals for their improved infrastructure, because you preferred the atmosphere when it was a bit shittier, and then realise that is an incredibly selfish opinion.
However, given the wealth of China now and the pace of the country’s development in other areas, it still has some way to go to educate its people. The relentless spitting, treating pavements as open-air toilets, is bewildering. It’s obviously not a big deal to most Chinese people, and the younger generations do not do it to the same extent as their elders, but it does highlight that providing infrastructure alone is not enough.
I’m not smart enough or rich enough to have a solution for this rubbish problem around the world, but it is a problem we humans both love to moan about and also help create in the first place. Ironically, a lot of the waste Indians throw away provides a livelihood for many scavengers. In fact, the UN estimates half of all rubbish in developing countries is dealt with this way. They not only search for valuable waste, but sort into different categories to sell on in bulk to people who can re-use the material. These scavengers have been nationalised in some parts of India, and have been issued with uniforms, gloves, health insurance, and a regular salary, on top of the sales they make from items themselves. Although it is an unsustainable model if the country develops and locals get other employment opportunities, it is currently the best solution India has found.
It will at least take a lot of money and a generation of different education to enable a change in poorer countries, but in the UK where the infrastructure and education is in place, it is far easier for us to do our bit. We are very fortunate to have people with the brains, power, and time to come up with innovative schemes such Hubbub’s ballot bin system in London, which can reduce cigarette butt littering by 46% on affected streets.
It is also nice to be able to walk down the street in London without having to dodge phlegm that arrows towards you at 30pmh from a passing car. And yes, sometimes the bin lorries stop in the middle of the road in London, delaying my urgent commute by 3 minutes, but next time they do I will appreciate it is for the greater good. I’ll swear at them first most likely, but then I’ll appreciate them.
Click here for further info on Indian waste.