08 November 2008

Urban Unit

The CIEE group just ended our final official unit. The urban unit consisted of a slum community home-stay, landfill community home-stay, and a day with HIV/AIDS victims. It was all connected because of the influx of migration toward urban areas. It was really awesome to live with the people and experience their lives. In the slums I went with my family to go fish in a pond near the city. They did not have much success which was sad because that is not just a pastime for them it is a mode of sustenance. My family’s main source of income though was picking recyclables out of trash. They travel all over the city and collect recyclables to redeem at a recycling facility. This has proven to be a relatively sustainable profession for them and they love not having an employer. After leaving the slums I went to live with a landfill community. Here they do a similar job. They pick the recyclable items out of the landfill, which they live right next to. Both communities have been hurt by the financial crisis in that they can’t get a good price for their goods. The collection centers have stopped taking cans all together right now and prices in other goods have dropped as far as 500%. This has made life very hard on the scavengers in Isaan.

Scavengers are not something I have really witnessed at the same degree in America. I know its illegal to pick other’s trash for health reasons or whatever but it’s interesting that people in Thailand are making enough money for a live off of scavenging while people in America are homeless and without a way to make money for themselves.

Today Americans are putting a lot of environmental focus on the need to recycle. This is a costly expense for taxpayers but it is necessary. Recycling can considerably cut down the need for minerals such as aluminum, steel, copper, or even plastics and cardboards. Recycling also gives the consumer the illusion that they are not being so wasteful.

While in Thailand it has really frustrated me that there have not been recycling bins or places where I can gain the illusion of reduced wastefulness for myself. I did not know what to do with bottles and cans. The only bottles I would buy if I could help it would be glass because they were reused and the storeowners would get a redemption refund. What I found while living in the slums and in the landfill community was that some of the trash I threw away was actually benefiting someone and the scavengers were sustaining themselves off of what I had discarded. I did not need to worry about the bottle I threw away because hopefully a scavenger would pick it up and make enough money to feed his or her family that night with my bottle’s help.

All this got me thinking while I was picking trash in the landfill. What would a recycling program mean for Thailand? If everyone was separating out most of their recyclables would there be a way for scavengers to make money? I’ve always thought of government run or private recycling companies taking a large role and picking up recycling as a good thing. But where people are allowed to scavenge and there is a reasonable way to make a living maybe there should not be a large recycling system in Thailand. What these scavengers do is a great service to the Thai people and to the planet through taking our waste and putting it back into the manufacturing system.

Wes Mills - Colorado Christian University

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I have asked myself the same questions about the value of a recycling system in Thailand. What I’ve been asking myself, however, is why hasn’t Thailand implemented a garbage removal system in the first place. After I left the sterile and fluorescent-lit Bangkok Airport, I immediately confronted the trails of litter that line the city’s streets. “Okay,” I thought to myself, “Sometimes there are empty bottles on sidewalks in D.C....maybe some cigarette butts.” But as I kept walking down Bangkok’s sidewalks, the streets of Khon Kaen, and the ban’s of Surin, I knew I wasn’t in America anymore.
In many ways, Thailand is “developed”; there are paved highway systems, cookie-cutter suburban developments, and of course, Starbucks. The trash littered throughout along these beacons of modernity, however, reminds me that Thailand is still in the early stages of development. Before we even begin to ponder the implementation of a national recycling in Thailand, the State needs to start picking up the trash (and not charging its own citizens to have it removed, especially in rural areas). If Thailand can’t remove its disposables, I doubt it can systematically sort, process, and re-use them.