February 4 was a historic day in our thousand year-old village. On that day trash collection began. Those of us who signed up for the service were provided 18-gallon trash cans identified with a code number. We are entitled to fill the can once a week. There is a collection fee equivalent to $1 a month.
Everybody in the city that I’ve told about this has had the same reaction, “What? You’ve not had trash collection before? What did you do?”
Well, in the days before trash collection, which were all the days before this week, there was a lack of system. First, everything of value was sold, and that included aluminum cans and glass bottles. Some plastic bottles and cardboard boxes could be sold as well as large heavy plastic sacks. Light weight paper and plastic wrap, along with leaves, weeds and plant trimmings were kept for burning once in a while. Table scraps became fertilizer. Neighbors without a space for burning found a place to toss their trash. One by one those places were posted with 500 baht warning signs, but ours is a big farming area with lots of “places”.
We are delighted to have the trash collection remove the temptation to create unsightly nuisance sites. This trash collection is, so far, the one benefit of our sub-district of villages becoming a municipality. I understand another more limited and more immediate advantage is that the sub-district officials’ incomes have gone up in various ways they are hesitant to talk about.
I have thought about this health and safety innovation as an aspect of vanishing village culture. The question I ask when we see anything new affecting village life is, “What was it like before this?” Was there a time, “before trash?” It might amaze young people, even those born and raised in our village, to know that there was a time when there was almost no trash. There were forces of nature working on everything, of course, but trash? No.
To get a handle on that we have to look at our trash item by item.
What happened to bottles in the “olden days”? There were bottles and they were used over and over. There were bottles because there were no cans. Before there were even bottles there were few liquids that needed to be transported in small amounts. Larger amounts came in pottery jars. Dippers were important. Before glass there was clay, lots of clay around here. Those jars never wore out. If they broke, which was inevitable, they became used for something else in some way depending on how broken they were.
What about plastic bags in former times, what was used in place of them? Plastic bags are used to transport retail purchases from one place to another, right? Using our three-era system of considering village culture, we can remember that before plastic bags there were paper bags and before that, baskets; but retail shopping did not happen very far from home. Baskets were important. One of the rural icons (now vanishing) is of older women with two baskets suspended from a shoulder pole made of bamboo, trotting along to the rhythm of the bouncing baskets. Lunches were carried in little baskets. Great loads of rice where carried in great whopping baskets on ox carts. Some baskets were coated in lacquer to hold ground and powdered material, or water for a short time. Smaller portions of foodstuffs were wrapped in leaves secured by bamboo pins that looked like large toothpicks. All those things made of leaves and bamboo were exquisitely bio-degradable, helped by a great multitude of tiny bugs and worms, ants and mold.
What about garbage? Amazingly, even today in a village there is little garbage. What people don’t eat village dogs and cats are happy to have, and what little is left might attract birds. Peelings and fruit scraps unceremoniously become fertilizer. Only a large community meal is likely to produce enough residue to require united effort. In the olden days meat was not a daily food item, and vegetable parts of recipes were generally gathered as needed. In other words, food production for a family did not create waste products that no one knew what to do with.
If we sort out the contents of our black garbage bags, most of it is containers for products that have been used up, or wrapping material that products came in. Modern packaging has two purposes as far as I can see, from my perspective as a village consumer: the packaging is designed to get the product from the point of manufacture to the consumer in good condition, and it is designed to display the product attractively in retail markets where decisions about what to buy are made on impulse rather than from lists and order blanks. Some food products come in packages 3 and 4 layers thick as do my individually wrapped cheese slices and my chocolate coated wafers.
Almost all of this sort of waste has been developed within my own lifetime. Now we have junk yards with acres of cars waiting to be stripped for parts, mountains of rubber tires waiting to mysteriously catch fire and burn for months, and vast plastic lined and unlined trenches being filled with municipal waste that will be dangerous until the end of time. What do we do with all the toilets in a large hotel when it is torn down or the concrete from a highway that is being replaced? The human race never has had to confront this before.
Trash has meaning. In terms of village life, the increase of trash and the need to get rid of it systematically are indications of change. There will no longer be basket weavers in every village, and nearly every household. Even now the basket weavers in our village are growing too old to do it and they have no one to teach. Terracotta pottery objects have become cultural artifacts and are used for decoration rather than as necessities. The sound of chopping no longer means someone is fashioning a wooden utensil or implement.
The range of our dependency has expanded. We now “need” products that come from distances unimaginable by our ancestors just a century ago. And soon we will think we need them more quickly than even steamships, railroads or highways can provide. We will want pipelines, electronic product transfers, and delivery sub-stations nearby. We will think we have to have them. We will not be able to do without them.
Our little trash cans will look pathetically inadequate.
Rev. Dr. Kenneth Dobson posts his weekly reflections on this blog.