Bengaluru, for me, a lesson in garbology

I’ve been thinking a lot about garbage.

Every day I find myself pondering about Bengaluru’s garbage plight. If you don’t live here, here’s a quick summary: there is a lot of garbage on the streets, sometimes so much it looks like a miniature landfill is just hanging out, uninvited, on your street corner. There aren’t public garbage bins because in 2000 they were banned in favor of an entirely different approach to waste management.

The Ugly Indian explained it well in an article: [Chief Minister SM Krishna] banned the street dustbin, and set up a door-to-door garbage collection system – using pushcarts and small three-wheeler autos. It was made illegal to dump garbage on street corners, people had to retain their daily garbage at home till the pickup person came to their home to collect. It was a total change in approach – a radical change of the way things had been for decades. It’s a good system, an ambitious system, but people are bad…Old habits die hard.”

Cows can frequently be found loitering in the Bengaluru garbage. Pic: Kate Clark

So you get the idea. There are no garbage bins, and despite the fact it is illegal to dump waste on the street, people are doing it anyway.

You can’t hide from garbage here and because of that I’ve never been so up close and personal with garbage in my life. Back home public garbage cans are entirely ubiquitous, here I stop in my tracks at the sight of one, utterly surprised to see it. When I first got here six weeks ago I was repeatedly puzzled when I had no place to throw away a gum wrapper, a coffee cup, or a banana peel. Now, I’m used to this absence and fortunately for me, the waste at my place of residence is picked up everyday, something not every Bengalurean can say. So, it’s not as though I am saying the garbage cans need to come back now. The problem, I’ve come to learn, is much too complex and systemic to be solved simply with the reimplementation of garbage bins. And I will stop here at attempting to explain just exactly how complicated the garbage issue is because it is far beyond my level of local knowledge.

Living in Bengaluru has not only made garbage interesting to me, but it’s also made me realise my own role in all of this, a role I’ve ignored back home. It’s made me think about how I can produce less trash, how I can contribute less to the miniature landfills sprinkled throughout Koramangala and to the landfills that are rapidly filling in the United States. It has also allowed me to develop a more comprehensive understanding of why garbage, waste management, and waste segregation are critical elements of public infrastructure. Yeah, I know these aren’t sexy topics, but they really should be because there are few things more important, (idea for future blog post: How To Make Garbology Sexy).

If you’re wondering how I got to this point, I would say the first step in this garbage-awakening was the cows. Of course the cows, always the cows. The infamous Bengaluru cows which I speak and write of often roam the city freely and inevitably find themselves knee-deep in garbage piles. (Hey, they are cows, they can’t resist!) Well, sometimes these same cows eat the garbage. Sometimes in that garbage is plastic. And sometimes that plastic kills that cow.

A spot of burning garbage in Koramangala, Bengaluru. Pic: Kate Clark

Of course there are a number of reasons why plastic is damaging to our environment and why plastic bags have been banned in a number of cities across the globe, this—the image of a cow dying of plastic consumption—was just a particularly explicit and irking example of the evils of plastic and garbage piles.

So, I’m learning about these evils, the importance of waste segregation, the upsides and unfortunately, downsides, of having public garbage bins. But why did it take me coming all the way to Bengaluru, India to learn about this stuff, which is equally important in the U.S.? Well the answer is pretty obvious. In the U.S., garbage doesn’t turn my route to work into an obstacle course. In the U.S., if I want to avoid garbage and evaluating my carbon footprint, I can easily turn a blind eye. In the U.S., garbage is out of your hair forever once you throw something away in your stainless steel garbage can you don’t even have to kneel down to open because you can just step on it with like, one toe. I don’t have to think about garbage, ever.

When I was younger and the plastic bag ban was implemented in Seattle, where I’m from, I didn’t think anything of it. I had a vague understanding that plastic was “bad for the environment,” a phrase I heard often but couldn’t actually make any valuable sense of. Stores across the city started charging for bags and I complied, paying the small fee instead of investing in reusable bags. I was and am spoiled by growing up in a clean city. Seattle values sustainability and environmentally-friendly-everything more than most American cities, because of this, I’ve never been concerned about my own impact on the environment; I assumed others were worrying about that for me. I expected my city to be clean whether or not I contributed to making it so. 

A spot of garbage in Koramangala, Bengaluru. Pic: Kate Clark

But I should contribute and I should think about garbage. I should know where my garbage is going and how I can minimise the amount of garbage I produce. I shouldn’t be entirely complacent, uneducated, and uninvolved with waste management. It’s too bad that I, having grown up in a city that is a hot-spot for environmentalists, hadn’t taken any interest in garbage before coming here.

Seriously, I had no idea how complex, political, messy, confusing, scary, gross, frustrating, and surprising of a topic it is. I told you, I’ve been thinking a lot about garbage.

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