Cath Wilson, Zero Waste Scotland and WasteAid’s newest Associate, shares her thoughts on the waste situation from her recent trip to India.
I very recently returned from a long-anticipated adventure in southern India. Having turned 50 on Boxing Day – not the best day for a big birthday, but never mind – my sights were firmly on ‘The Spice Trails of Kerala’, a guided tour that for the first week would take me and my fellow travellers high into the Western Ghats, trekking through tea, spice and coffee plantations, through forests and past impressive waterfalls before ascending Meesapulimala Peak (at 2630m the second highest in southern India).
The peak also marks the border with Tamil Nadu, from where we continued walking through the beautifully named Silent Valley, passing through small villages and on through various landscapes as we moved between our remote campsites. Whilst walking we were lucky enough to see giant squirrels and Indian Gaur (a type of wild cattle), a langur monkey swinging through the trees, numerous native birds and elephants as well as evidence of leopard, wild dogs and porcupines.
Whilst the mainly uninhabited national parks we visited were, for the most part, free of litter, flytipping and waste, what I wasn’t quite prepared for – though I had been warned – was the scale and nature of the litter and – even worse – the almost completely uncontained domestic and commercial waste that we encountered as soon as we were within range of any populated village or town. In Munnar, our first destination after arriving in the busy port of Cochin, we went for a walk around the town and local market. Still somewhat jet-lagged, this provided my first real experience of the noise, colours, smells, culture, people and – unfortunately – rubbish associated with even a relatively small Indian settlement. It was quite a shock. Not only was there no evidence of any kind of litter bins – as far as I could see there were no bins whatsoever. Waste was disposed of in the streets, in the rivers (particularly difficult to countenance), on the verges or on numerous pieces of unused land.
My experience, whilst a fascinating and hugely enjoyable one which I’m keen to repeat, paid testimony to the significant challenges faced by countries such as India in dealing with huge quantities of solid wastes and yet the most rudimentary of infrastructure – where it exists at all. I was glad to see some evidence of the beginnings of reparative action – a painted message on a temple walkway, a primary school where the children were being taught not to litter, even a basic recycling station beside some tea plantation workers’ cottages. Around the remarkable Sri Meenakshi Temple in the city of Madurai, which we visited in our second week, there was evidence of clean up measures going on as well as provision of litter and recycling facilities. But not far from the temple, in the busy market streets we toured on bicycle rickshaws and in tuk-tuks, it was back to the same depressing sight of widespread waste, particularly the ubiquitous plastics that we struggle to contend with even at home.
Perhaps it’s unsurprising given the hand-to-mouth existence I witnessed in most of the places we visited that waste management – never mind recycling and prevention – is not a priority. Of course, I only saw a small part of a huge country in a limited period of time, so the situation may well be better – and worse – in other areas. However, given the recent very welcome surge in concern about the global plastic pollution crisis, and with evidence suggesting that most of the plastic entering the oceans comes from ten rivers in Africa and Asia, NGOs like Waste Aid UK have a crucial role to play in raising awareness, generating funding and providing direct project support to communities in need of the skills, resources and support to take direct action where they live. As someone who’s worked on litter and waste issues for almost 20 years in Scotland – with varying degrees of success and I must admit at times some real frustration – the scale of these problems in southern India completely dwarfs my experience of them in the UK. So – a New (if slightly belated) Year’s Resolution for me: to contribute directly to the work of Waste Aid in the coming months and years – both in Scotland and overseas.