Living on a dumping ground

Over the Christmas break we traveled with family in Myanmar and visited all the highlights of this country (see here for a short film). The trip was above expectations and the places rightly deserve to be called highlights: we took the night-bus from Yangon to Mandalay, the last royal capital of the country. We then cruised the Irrawaddy river South and (E-) motored our way around the plains of Bagan which are dotted with hundreds of Buddhist temples. Our third stop was the hilltown Kalaw, at an altitude of 1,320 meters, where we trekked through various ethnic-minority villages and enjoyed the cool weather. Our last stop before taking a rest at the beach of Ngwe Saung and body-boarding the Gulf of Bengal, was stunning Inle lake that is surrounded by the Shan-State hills. This area is home to Intha people who literally live on the lake, grow their crops in floating gardens and row their fishing boats, while balancing on one leg.

Picture: Colourful markets make Pa-O women coming down to Inle lake from their villages in the hills to sell their vegetables, spices, fruits and handi-crafts.

Apart from the numerous most stunning sun-sets ever seen, we were also confronted with the result of increasing consumption of packaged food and a failing waste collection system in an emerging economy. Everywhere during our travels, there was plastic waste dumped into public spaces: side walks, forests, water ways, beaches, hills sides – everywhere.

Picture: Sun-set in Bagan.

You hear a lot about the global waste problem and plastic soup in the oceans. There is so much waste that industrial countries even export their rubbish to developing countries. It makes you wonder that apparently shipping containers of waste from the UK to Malaysia is cheaper than processing it at home. It certainly is not cleaner, considering the waste processing techniques used in this part of the world plus transport emissions.

Here in Myanmar the waste problem really gets into your face. Some people believe it’s mostly an awareness issue, but let’s be real that can not be the only cause. There are many great initiatives everywhere in Myanmar (Thant Myanmar, Trash Hero, Clean Yangon, the current up-cycling exhibition in The Secretariat, to name a few) and based on the tens of responses and Likes from mostly Myanmar residents we received on our Facebook post about the issue, you can only conclude that people are hungry for a change.  

People don’t want to live on a dumping ground, nowhere. In the West we are so used that garbage is being picked-up and processed that we almost tend to forget that it is not (only) our level of awareness that gives us a cleaner environment. It mostly is a functioning public service, for which we pay taxes. As soon as this falls away there is rubbish in the streets, such as what happened in Napoli during the waste crisis there some years ago. Rubbish attracts more rubbish: have you ever illegally put your waste in somebody’s else’s container that was  placed in the street for house construction waste? We did and not only one time. Sorry neighbours.

Picture: Collecting rubbish on the beach.

This sheep-effect is exactly what is happening in Myanmar. In the mountain villages around Kalaw, for instance, there is no waste collecting system and the waste is dumped a hundred meters lower down the mountain. One starts and the others follow. People in Myanmar just don’t have a place to go to with their waste. And when a collection system exists because people can afford to pay for it, it is questionable where the waste ends up, as landfills are usually not in great condition.

Only heavy investments in infrastructure, public services and tax systems can turn this problem into a structural way forward. Government, civil-servants, banks and companies producing waste, need to be involved.

Considering the growing population, economy and consumption in Myanmar, this can no longer wait. Let’s make 2019 the year of fighting waste and of course continue implementing small scale efforts such as our own new year’s resolution of reducing waste, by using cotton shopping bags, banning straws and chewing gum (among others).

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