I have been based outside of India for a month and a half, I had previously been based in that country for work since August 2018. Since October I have worked remotely from Sri Lanka and am now sitting in northern Thailand and I feel that it is a timely occasion to reflect on the different perspectives between where I have been working in India and where I have been located of late.
From what I have found there are contrasting views of the right way forward in terms of sustainability and often it is driven by the fact that we bring in outside opinions into locations that are quite different. Now, by this, let’s start simply (note that this article is intentionally an oversimplification of a complex scenario in order to raise the concluding points):
I have been consulting for a zero waste business based in Bangalore since April this year. Prior to that I was consulting for two other businesses within India that were focused on sustainability in different ways, one through composting and one through solar energy. This then totals over a year of being immersed in the field in a single location, surrounded by people who know what you’re thinking (on a basic level of course! There are no mind readers in this space), understand what you are saying and believe that we keep needing to strive for tangible change in certain ways that produce certain outcomes.
This brings us to stop one on my three month hiatus away from India. Sri Lanka does have a problem with plastic, just like everywhere else in the world but per population it is on the extreme end of the scale. Take for instance a meal at a ‘hotel’- one where people dine in rather than stay a night. Quite often there will be a thin piece of plastic placed on top of the plate, for what we will assume is solely for hygiene reasons. I’m not going to look into this further here but simply put if I was to take my view from my immersed life in India where I have not witnessed this situation before, well, this is all but a catastrophic situation! Yet, when looking for the reasons why, discussing the situation with people and getting to know them I found that there is an understanding about sustainability and the reasons why certain products such as plastic would be better served to fit within a circular economy rather than linear- the assumption can be made that despite this they still, currently at least, see no option than to use the single use plastic layer, perhaps it is that in this case the habit of achieving a more hygienic way of eating a meal so that the person is not sick the following day trumps long term sustainability.
Despite this situation that at times led me to feel down there is movement toward more environmentally sound practices occurring. A prime case in point was presented to me by a local action group that I met on one of my last days in the country. I wasn’t in the global well connected city of Colombo. Instead, I was in a small town in the hills. It was a town where I witnessed first hand (and through my nose) the burning of waste, and the disposal of waste down the sides of hills and in over full landfills. How poignant is it that the one location where I did not expect the voices, opinions and understandings, that I had become accustomed to in India, to appear? It is admittedly a small sample size, but one that shows promise. The group was only 6 members strong when I met them and the people were young but they could, notably, express what they wanted- access to information about this waste crisis that they could adapt to their situation i.e. first hand examples from Sri Lanka about solutions that work there.
Changing location for a moment before I bring that group back in again. I was at a market in northern Thailand over the weekend. It was a large event with clothes, small trinkets and music. Along with that was the food market with single use plastic, styrofoam, organic waste that was mixed with other materials, gas stoves and charcoal grills lifting smoke into the sky. I had a great time (on a day to day basis I suggest to not always feel rotten when you see unsustainable practices, rather I'd encourage to look for positives as noted below). So did many other people there, it was a weekend festival at a location where weekend festivals are cherished by both the locals and tourists. Of course the wastefulness was extreme but what other choice was there?
That choice was provided to me at a stall. My first food stall I visited, actually. It was a banana leaf bowl. I finished the food within and then took it around with me. I used it for my next meal at a different stall instead of them providing me with a styrofoam container. I did this again and again. The vendors understood what I was doing. They were aware of it just like the young group I met in Sri Lanka were aware of waste issues. Poignantly, both the young group and that banana leaf bowl, although they were exceptions rather than the norm, are tangible change. Smaller scale and a different set up to what I had become used to in India but still it was tangible and it is change. The bowl itself is an example of a solution that Thai people had found that can work for many people in their country. This type of country by country duplication was what the group, we first met above, were after. I'm sure the bowl was not an overnight change, yet it happened just as a transition will occur in Sri Lanka and other places around the world.
What would have happened if I came in with my ideals of how a system should work? What would have happened had I spoke up at every bonfire of waste in Sri Lanka or vendor with a styrofoam container in Thailand? Perhaps nothing. Perhaps the start of something. The thing is that although we all want change and we all have our peaks and troughs of being positive and negative about the situation we must understand other people’s perspectives in order to drive this conversation forward. From what I have found, people in India know about these issues, so do people in Sri Lanka and in Thailand and in my home country of Australia. Yet, in each location there is a certain situation that people will face in becoming more sustainable based on the scenario at hand that is specific to that location that will need addressing.
Why did the people in the hill towns of Sri Lanka burn waste? Perhaps a lack of space and no formal waste system to do anything about (simplifying reasons, there are many more). Why did the vendors at the market provide items in styrofoam when other materials were available? Perhaps it is still the cheaper option and when you need to support a family in the immediate sense instead of looking long term you do what you must do to survive (once again simplifying).
There are many reasons and many answers but all of them will benefit from ongoing discussions and tailoring solutions to fit to certain areas. Additionally, forcing a perspective on top of people who you may assume do not know about something, will inevitably do more harm than good if you find out that the individual who is undertaking an unsustainable practice does, in fact, know. So, where does this leave us?
- Firstly, it is important to step outside of the bubble that you find yourself in. This can help evaluate just how things are going objectively.
- Secondly, find out the reasons why people are undertaking things in a certain way. Ask them to share their knowledge as well as you sharing yours in a collaborative discussion so that solutions for their situation as well as yours can be found (a collective knowledge base, for instance).
- Lastly, gain an understanding that although we are all linked together on this planet (and a circular economy will require just this) there is still opportunity for individualism in each situation. What may work for India may not work the same way in Sri Lanka even though the nations are similar. It doesn’t mean that it is not working, instead, it means that by deepening our knowledge of why things are working that way we will have more transparency and more understanding about how waste is changed from waste to a resource in that location and how it assists in the global system.
A future like that has hope in many ways. Profoundly, just like the banana leaf plate that I ate off on the weekend, it is already starting to show both individually and as a whole in many locations across the globe.