Much of Asia that Nate and I have seen is distinctly trashy. I mean literally trashy, like covered in trash. There is a constant supply of litter on the ground, and sometimes a deluge of rancid trash.
The trash is disgusting, but it is shocking how the locals interact with the trash. The trash is most often not noticed, and the idea of “littering” is inconceivable. The level of trash varies country by country, town by town. We noted the trash when we first landed in Beijing, but it was so ubiquitous it quickly became part just part of the background. I don’t recall noticing the trash again until we reached Dalat Vietnam 1.5 months later. We noticed the trash in Dalat because it was NOT there. It had become so normal for us to see wrappers in every bush and styrofoam in every eddie that to see a clean city was absolutely shocking. This cleanliness shock occurred again when we arrived in Singapore and finally again when we landed in Turkey.
The trash on the ground was almost too easy to overlook, but what we never got used to was the littering. Tour guides on “eco” tours would provide us with food and throw the wrappers on the ground. When we asked why, they did not really understand the question and asked ‘what else would we have done?’ We would ask people where to find a trash can and they would be utterly perplexed. This was described very well in the book “Indonesia Etc.”, by Elizabeth Pisani where the author describes being made fun of for having old tissues and wrappers in her pocket. She details her horror of painstakingly gathering her trash while on a boat trip, when she asked where to put it the employee laughed at her tossed all her trash overboard.
The stories of horrors of trash seem limitless. The canals full of trash and rancid odor, the hiking trails so covered in trash the tourist can’t seem to notice the scenery through it, the brand new multi million dollar levee system that breaks in just a few days due to litter, the gutters you have to jump across due to the mounding trash etc etc.
I wish I had a solution for this problem, but for now I do not. I know that the fix needs to be not only a change in public sentiment but a change in public knowledge. One thing that I did see as having a truly positive impact was the understanding that tourists hate trash, but this just results in people picking up trash, just to put it back down in a more hidden place. A true silver lining to this story is Surabaya, Indonesia. This city is pretty clean, I mean no where near spotless, but not disgusting, so yeah! Surabaya became clean(er) after the landfill was closed during a protest and the city filled up with trash to a point that life was seriously impacted. There was a grass roots project to clean up the city, they opened recycling banks and appointed neighborhood cleanliness chairs and they have yearly competitions to determine which neighborhood is the cleanest.