Thursday 21 November 2013

Pollute or Not to Pollute ? That is the Question

I was sitting around a table with people I mostly didn’t know the other weekend when one of them asked me a question I have heard many times before. 

“What do you think of living here?” I gave my usual answer, along the lines, there has been many fine, interesting and intelligent people I have met, but I have found the general infrastructure of the area and degraded environment difficult to deal with.

Most agree with the former, but give me odd bewildered looks about the latter or as some have verbalised “It's the illegals' fault.”  In other words," It's not my fault it’s like this." 

The impression I get is that the state of the domestic social environment hardly enters most locals' consciousness and is generally not thought of as a concern that they should be bothered with.  Is this so? Or are there other factors in play here.

In this short spiel, I would like to explore the possible reasons that may be behind this.  I want to particularly concentrate on litter (plastic / paper) and used cooking oil.  These two items apart from being the most common forms of pollution in built-up areas are the most obvious visually and in the case of oil, in a olfactory sense.  It must be stated this is a problem encountered in many parts of the world and not exclusive to here. 

If one is to walk around town, it quickly becomes apparent large amounts of inadequately disposed rubbish are lying around in the streets and side alleys.  Some may have “escaped” the designated refuse collection areas but the vast majority of it is thrown there.  I have directly observed many instances of people dropping unwanted items on the ground without a second thought. The most notable was driving behind a car where a woman in the passenger’s seat proceeded to empty a waste paper basket full of old fruit scraps and plastic bags onto the side of the road as the car sped on.  Fortunately the fruit missed us but the plastic briefly obscured the driver's vision. What was she thinking?  Or more to the point, was she.

I have heard on a number of occasions that awareness to this issue is wealth dependant.  If you are struggling to make ends meet, you are hardly likely to be concerned about the finer details of rubbish management. On a higher level, the municipal department responsible for collection doesn’t have the money to do the job properly. I can understand this argument up to a point.  Nevertheless I think personal pride in living in a healthy and clean environment is a human virtue the majority of rich and poor would want to adhere to. 

The local council’s lack of public garbage bins is one of the major problems. The area I live in I can only think of 2 bins in general use -  hardly adequate.  Human nature dictates that people will not carry that used plastic wrapper longer than it takes to throw it on the ground. 

In the shopping areas, there are compounds that contain a large number of waste reciprocals but they are usually full, filthy and rat infested. In other words, the local rubbish collection system is at best under stress or at worst woefully deficient.  When the rains come and that is frequent in this part of the world, a lot of this refuge is washed into the open drain catchment system that eventually finds its way out to the open sea.  The drains not only carry hard waste but are polluted with used cooking oil. To my knowledge, there is little recycling of this oil, so most of it easily finds its way into the  storm water drainage system.  As you can imagine, this elicits a putrid odour that comes up from the drains permeating through most of the built up area. 

For me, the smell and sight are obvious but to most locals it doesn’t register in the same way.  I think it's an example of spending your life growing up with this situation, so it doesn’t seem at all unusual, it's just there in the background. Littering holds no perceivable personal guilt.  Programs about environmental awareness don’t appear to go beyond the school yard with no concerted social effort to mitigate the problem.  

Some of the possible solutions will not be palatable in a cultural sense.
Stilted dwellings over the sea are common here and emptying one’s waste products into the water is a given fact. What government is going to remove these people who in most cases have lived this way for hundreds of years?
The dilemma; a lifestyle that had minimal environmental impact in years gone by, but due to increased population pressure and consumerism  is now unsustainable.  In the past, throwing organic waste away on the ground or sea was not such an issue; plastic bags are.

Whats the answer then?  Education comes to mind but this process can be very slow if a generational attitude change is to occur.  An effective refuge collection and distribution of public bins around town is needed (ones with lids, so the rubbish doesn’t get blown about) or stronger policing of polluters based on the Singaporean model. Banning the plastic bag in supermarkets like many other countries forcing shoppers to use alternatives has shown to be helpful.   But I fear the political will doesn't exist here to implement such a policy effectively.

So, where does that leave us?  Nowhere really.  Human beings won’t change behaviour unless they are forced to or there are sound economic reasons to do so. Neither of these scenarios appear likely in the foreseeable future.    

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