Even as a kid I was appalled that someone would throw their trash on the ground! Why would they do that? There was at least one garbage can in every shop and on every street corner, often next to a recycle bin. As long as a person dedicated literally one minute to properly disposing their garbage, the streets stayed clean and the people were happy. The inability to throw trash on the ground has stuck with me to this day.
Kendra and I, for the first days in Sherpur, held onto every piece of trash that we accumulated. It began on the bus. We drank our bottle of water, but had no place to throw it away. We were fine with lugging it around until we found a trash can. After arriving at the Palace (a building rented by PEP to house workers), we looked around for a trash can. Seeing none, we dedicated a plastic bag to hold our garbage. By the end of that week, the bag was bursting with little bits of trash, and still we had found no place to throw away the bag. Ultimately we left the bag in the room, fairly certain that it ended up with all of the other trash, on the streets.
I was shocked the first time I saw our direct superior nonchalantly throwing an ice cream wrapper onto the ground outside the ice cream shop. I was even more shocked when I saw a man on the bus instruct his three-year-old son to throw their plastic water bottle out of the window. Kendra and I began to notice piles of trash flanking each highway and village road. Gutters were flowing with rancid filth. Dogs and goats would scavenge through these piles, finding food to eat. Soon I was overwhelmed. I could not believe that the people and the government would let the waste escalate, unchecked, to this scale.
This is not to say that people living in the cities and villages do not make an effort to reduce the problems deriving from this waste. Shop owners in Dhaka will sweep garbage away from their shop and into concise piles. Residents of a village will unclog the sewers once they begin to overflow onto the streets. These efforts, however, are a short-term fix. Just as the PEP employee was not concerned with the ice cream wrapper after he tossed it away, these individuals are not concerned with the piles that they create. I began to wonder, “Where does the trash go now?” I asked our translator if there was a formal collection system for trash in Bangladesh. He did not know. I then asked another PEP employee and he did not know.
Finally, after asking our boss, I was able to get an answer: There is no formal collection system throughout Bangladesh. Some groups and villages collectively burn their trash. Other private organizations dump trash into informal and improperly managed holes in the ground. I was appalled. I had learned to excuse the littering because I assumed that at some point the trash would find its way to a sanitary landfill or other environmentally friendly disposal site. I had never expected to ride on a motorcycle through a plume of smoke billowing from a pyre of plastic.
An article that I read in a national newspaper showed me that Bangladesh was committed to reduce waste and pollution, however the policies and the population were not achieving these aims. This article explained that the Bangladeshi parliament recently passed a law restricting pollution in the brick industry. The legislation claimed that brick furnaces throughout Bangladesh would be allowed to burn between September and December only if they had a scrubber or other emission-cleaning component. The brick furnaces, which dot expansive “brick fields” like smokestacks erupting from the ground, employ an enormous population of Bangladesh. The policy took a bold step at reducing the pollution of Bangladesh despite reducing national production of brick. I was absolutely shocked to find out that this policy had not already been in place. In reality, this policy allows these furnaces to emit filthy emissions for eight months out of the year. The article illustrated that the government and the populations are trying to reduce this problem, however, it also showed me that many steps are needed to produce the results they desire.
In our first meeting with PEP workers Kendra and I asked, “What are some of the largest poverty traps for Bangladesh?” The workers unanimously explained that environmental change was one of the largest traps. Kendra and I were surprised not to hear a dissenting voice claim that environmental change was not occurring, or that the problems would fix themselves. The workers of PEP showed us that they had a strong sense of the interconnectedness between development and environmental forces. Yet these workers have disconnected their actions from the grandiose environmental change that they spoke about.
Bangladesh has many forces impeding its ability to reduce its environmental damages. Low levels of job creation, poverty, and poor infrastructure have proved themselves to be a few of the many obstacles that impede a smooth transition to environmental sustainability in Bangladesh. However, the population of Bangladesh, I believe, is the primary obstacle. The population feels the harmful effects of environmental damages arguably harder than anywhere else in the world. However, the disconnectedness, lack of accountability, and disillusionment throughout the population are obstacles to the popular initiative for increasing environmental sustainability. Without the popular support, government policies and private garbage collection have proven to be insubstantial for realizing the gains that Bangladesh desires.
- Ryan Gibson