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Sorry it’s been so long since we have had a blog update. It’s been an interesting time here in Bangladesh. We are wrapping up our time with our internship and have spent the last few weeks reflecting on our time here and what we have learned. What we have discovered is a culture that is facing a crisis of identity and responsibility. I have struggled with this post for the last few weeks trying to decide what way I wanted to go with it. I have decided to take a matter of fact hard line approach but with little bits of hope and suggestions that we can all learn from. So pardon the negative spin at times in this post. This is mostly an observation of where Bangladesh is at. Coming from both of our backgrounds we have spent many a night discussing the strengths and weaknesses of the country we have come to understand. Our snapshot is from a small area of the country and what we have come to know may not be true about the entire place, but from our friends we have made we have gotten a good understanding of what goes on in most places. Sorry for the essay like nature of the following writing but I was thinking for those interested in the material presented here it could be an unprecedented look into the workings of a culture in many ways opposite of our own. We have both experienced moments where humanity comes shining through in ways that reassure us we all share a common thread. Yet there are also times where we are caught totally off guard by cultural difference. While these moments were frustrating and often hilarious when looking back they are also reassuring, knowing no matter how connected we think we are there is always something in the world to set you apart. I will be splitting each section up and posting each one at a time, that way it’s something a little more manageable.

Trash

Bangladesh if I were giving you a grade on your ability to handel and process trash you would surely get an F-. If I had visited 10 years back this may have been a different story but what the current state shows is nothing short of failure on your part to take responsibility for your actions. Let me explain, as that last sentence does sound a bit harsh. Every day I walk down the street to my favorite soda vendor, the man’s name that runs the shop is Babu, and all I can ever think about is the Charlie Brown quote from Lucy to Linus, “Oh, my sweet Babu.” Babu is the nicest guy, always has a smile on, always laughing, and remembered after trip three that I had a thing for cold 1-liter bottles of Coke. All of the soda Babu sells comes in plastic bottles, ok, that’s normal back home, but here that’s a relatively new concept. Today you can still find every soda in glass bottles; the problem is they only come in 10-oz portions. Generally, I share my Coke with Jordan and Nazmeen so not only the cost of buying three 10-oz glass bottles but the packaging amounts to more than one 1-liter plastic bottle. Well after two months of this little habit I started to think where does my garbage go when I throw something away? All I had to do was stop and ask the question to myself before I realized the horror of the answer; across the street in the ditch. Within the city center people to make an effort to dump their garbage into common areas, but with the primary garbage being vegetable matter and cooking scraps the stench is at times unbearable in the area of about one city block. Usually there is a herd of goats or cows munching on the newly discarded waste but then you get the added benefit of manure mixed in. Another common area to dump garbage is against walls abutting lakes. Many of these walls are cement and were built either before the war for independence or shortly after in the early 70’s. Almost every lake has a wall around part of it and at the bottom of the wall goes the garbage. As time goes on the ground under the wall erodes away into the lake and the wall crumbles a little allowing the garbage to just fall right into the water. Generally only a few yards away there is inevitably someone washing their clothes, bathing, swimming, or fishing. Truly there are times when I wonder how has disease not taken this entire country. I don’t understand how you could smell the garbage, see the garbage, and then bathe in the garbage. People here know about bacteria, how do they not put two and two together?!?

As you may have put together there is no trash service here, none at all in the entire city. The population of Jessore is 1.17 million… let that sink in for a second. 1.17 million People are making trash every day; 1.17 million people are throwing their trash in ditches, lakes, and ground level patches all over the city. If Jessore city has 1.17 million and it’s the most developed area of the district (county) and the entire district has 2.76 million people imagine the amount of trash people are producing every day. For an at home comparison, San Diego has 1.3 million people in the city, 3.1 in the metro area, so similar in size. Now most of the trash people are making is biodegradable, most packaging of snacks occurs in news paper, all veggies are bought using reusable bags, but the fact still remains trash is discarded in close proximity to people’s homes. It’s not just soda bottles that are a problem but candy wrappers and chip bags, each thing that comes pre-packaged from the outside world gets dumped on the street. Things we don’t even think twice about in city centers like the availability of trash cans is not present here; if there is no trash service there is no trash cans.

Sometimes people will burn small collections of garbage, but that has its own unique issues with air pollution. This is compounded when people burn plastics as the fumes are not only terrible for the environment but also for people burning the garbage. 

Time for a bright spot of hope. In the village that Jordan and I work in there is a form of recycling that is occurring, yet it isn’t quite what you are thinking of. On the edge of the commercial sector of town there is an area where people put things that are technically recyclable. There’s a man there who we think is paid and he sorts out the plastic from the cans and the flip flops from the wood. Every few weeks a truck comes by and they load up and take the “recyclables” away. Dhaka does have a garbage collection service in parts of the city too. SO as a whole things are starting to look up for Bangladesh in terms of plastic. But on a bigger scale I am scared for the amount of plastic and foil packaging that’s going to end up in the Indian Ocean before they can get US style garbage collection. As an Ecologist this is a nightmare, knowing there isn’t anything I can do. Even if I tell people to stop throwing garbage on the streets, it still ends up in a gutter.

I had a very enlightening discussion with one of the engineers at site a few weeks back about greenhouse gas and climate change. He was aware of the problems we are facing with our increased consumption of fossil fuels, sea level rise, salt infiltration into freshwater in Bangladesh, and how the developing world is generally powerless to stop it. He was scared about this topic, not wanting to offend me knowing I come from a country that produces so much CO2. I could sense his anxiety and beat him to the punch saying my friends and I were all aware of what our country was doing and we were trying to slow the consumption. I told him how we try to walk rather than drive, how we have implemented energy saving measures at home, and how we really don’t use a heater or AC. He was so glad to hear there were people in the States that cared and were aware what sea level rise was doing to his country. He was so moved, almost to tears, that there was hope in the world. I told him you have a voice and you should keep challenging those he meets. It has been one of only two conversations on climate science I have had in the last 3 months, and it was something that changed this man’s mind about Americans. However scary climate change may be, plastic pollution has a larger psychological effect. Seeing trash on the beach always hits people hard, at least back home. I have had limited discussions with people about the feelings they get from seeing trash everywhere. The limit in my ability to talk about this comes from the fact this is a highly abstract concept for people who have never traveled more than 150 km away from the place they were born. In these travels they generally stay in Bangladesh where the feelings on trash disposal are the same anywhere you go. Telling someone the trash you throw on the ground here ends up in the ocean and can kill fish and other life along the way is beyond their scope of the world. It will take many years of education and a large public works campaign to change the mindset of the people here. Look out Indian Ocean looks like your garbage patch is going to grow a little larger before it starts to shrink.

If I had to give Bangladesh one thing to make this problem better it would be to start communal dump. The creation of a modern landfill can be costly, but there are only a few things that are critical in creating a fully contained garbage collection area. Earth movers are in short supply here, so it becomes a challenge to actually dig the landfill, but it is still something that when comparing the health costs associated with garbage disposal within the urban setting may be well worth the investment. Liners to prevent the lechate (trash juice) from getting into the ground water are also critical. This step CAN NOT be skipped in this area as many of the people get their water from public wells. These wells are only about 60 feet deep and there is almost no bedrock in the area. A non-permeable liner in a relatively shallow landfill could be just what this area needs to getting well on the way to being health and tourist friendly. There are plenty of nacimons (flat bed diesel powered tricycle) that could have small sides added, similar to a wagon back home, and could collect the refuse from central cement lined dumping points to drop off at the landfill. While this would require a large public education movement and a small amount of investment from the local government it could really pay off. Chips, soda, and cookies are still new enough to the culture that mandating recyclable packaging or biodegradable plastics would still be feasible. This however, would require a focused and strong movement from the federal government. That leads me to the next portion of the discussion…

 


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