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The Problem of Tang, or, the Dangers of Normalizing Pollution

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One of the biggest problems of conservation that my host organization has identified is the problem of solid waste management, or the lack thereof, in the Ladakh region. The problem began with tourists, drinking endless bottles of water, but it has now spread throughout life in the Himalayas, as it has throughout India. Almost everything consumed in this country comes packaged in plastic or metal – and there is nowhere for those materials to go after their brief service as bottles and wrappers. The problem is not unique to Ladakh, though, so I’d like to look at the problem a bit more broadly.

Truthfully, I began thinking about this earnestly in mid-March. Around that time, while living and working in Dehra Dun, there was a roughly two-week period where solid wastes were being burned all across the city. It wasn’t happening in isolated incidents, either. I remember sitting in a restaurant that had a decent view of the city and seeing hundreds of distinct plumes of thick grey smoke throughout the valley. There is also a landfill about a kilometre from my apartment. It was set alight one day and burned for about two weeks. During this time, the smoke was inescapable. My apartment would fill with it – turning on the kitchen’s exhaust fan only pulled more noxious air in through the windows. I felt nauseated continuously for weeks.

During that time, nobody else seemed as bothered by it as I was. I may have a peculiar weakness to the smell of burning plastics, but it was still surprising to me that such widespread burning of solid wastes is so… normal. I was surely not the only person suffering from it: the health effects of air pollution in India are well known. Nonetheless, there is something worrying to me that it is so easy to become desensitized to such bad pollution. I was reminded of a great post by NPR’s Robert Krulwich, What Happened On Easter Island — A New (Even Scarier) Scenario.

In that blog, which I encourage you to read (it’s short), Krulwich tells the story of Easter Island, famous for its enormous stone heads, the “moai.” Then he tells the story of Tang, which he calls “a sad, flat, synthetic orange juice popularized by NASA.” (Perhaps some of my American readers remember drinking it… I still remember how bad it made my teeth feel.) In telling the story of Easter Island, he shows that the popular understanding of its collapse (think: Jared Diamond) does not tell the whole story. Rather than a big, abrupt collapse, anthropological evidence seems to suggest that there was a slow, multi-generational process of decay. The same people who had built enormous hollow-log canoes and began the process of carving the famous stone heads eventually became the people Captain Cook met – living off rat meat on an island completely denuded of most of its plants. Their boats were now patched together from driftwood, because there were no more trees on the island. Some analysts thought this was a success story (“Look how resilient those people were!”). Krulwich argues that this “success” is no success at all.

As their environment decayed, so did the peoples’ memories of what they had once had. This is where Tang comes in. Krulwich compares the slow, piece-by-piece destruction of the Easter Islanders’ lifestyle and livelihoods to how someone might grow to accept Tang. If you’ve ever had real orange juice, you’ll know Tang is no real substitute. But if all you have is Tang, it may taste pretty good to you. You will adjust to the “new normal” and it will seem to be enough, but your standard of life has lessened. The degradation has just happened slowly enough that you don’t know what you’re missing.

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Plastic wastes being burned in an empty lot, Dehra Dun.

I see the same thing happening all around the world in regards to pollution, but particularly so here in India. During those hazy, smoggy days in March, I began wondering if accepting the bad air was one step on a downward slide of degradation. As I write this paragraph, a few days after starting to compose this blog, the burning has started again. It is clear that those two weeks were not some isolated “burning season,” and that the burning may go on all year. If this is so, we may all someday forget what it’s like to take a giant lungful of air – and not worry that it’s giving us cancer or aggravating our asthma. I suspect some urban peoples have already forgotten that pleasure.

Now, to be clear, I am not placing much blame on the average person who burns refuse here in India. There is an educational component which is missing, but it’s probably also the case that they’re just trying to keep all the wastes from building up ad infinitum. I firmly believe that solid waste management is a basic responsibility of municipal governments. It is merely a question of resources, and how municipalities choose to allocate them. Garbage collection is decidedly unglamorous, but after struggling through a few weeks of bad air, I’ve become a huge fan of it. I never thought growing up in a place with municipal solid waste management as such was a privilege, but I now see differently. And we haven’t even started talking about the proliferation of combustion engines – probably the biggest actual polluters in Indian cities, if not the ones that made me sick a few weeks ago.

Of course, dumping solid wastes in “sanitary” landfills is far from an ideal solution. But in the absence of full-fledged systems of composting (organic materials), re-using (durable materials like glass bottles), and “up-cycling” (which doesn’t truly exist on a big-enough scale anywhere in the world yet, as far as I know, though some countries are getting close) – in the absence of those things, collecting solid wastes and managing landfills seems prudent. In the middle, of course, we’ll have to develop cost-and-energy-effective systems of recycling, something akin to what we have in the United States (but better). But at the very least we should stop burning it. It’s literally killing us.

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Some freshly repurposed and repainted waste barrels in Ladakh. These were distributed to a few village waste collection sites in November 2016.

My host group in Ladakh, the Snow Leopard Conservancy India Trust (SLC-IT), has been working with locals in villages that lie along the most popular trekking routes. SLC-IT has been popularizing and mainstreaming the use of waste collection barrels in these villages – hopefully to cut down on the sheer amount of plastic refuse that ends up on the sides of trails and clogging up sensitive meadows and streams. Now, again, this is not an ideal solution: “other” wastes (like paper and organics) are transported from these villages to Leh city, where there is a limited-but-existent municipal capacity to deal with them. “Recyclable” materials, on the other hand, must be trucked to Jammu, which is quite a long distance away. Transporting such materials via pollutive diesel-powered trucks adds significantly to their carbon lifecycles, but there is simply no capacity to deal with them in Leh. Additionally, SLC-IT has been working on developing partnerships with transport companies, who often drive their trucks back to Jammu empty after delivering their cargoes in Leh. Again, not ideal, but probably better than burning many tons of plastic every year.

My point is that all of this takes careful planning, dedication of public (and private) resources, and the continuous striving for a better system of stuff. And we should never accept the degradation of our environments and the poisoning of our bodies as in any way appropriate. I also hope India will take the “leapfrogging” approach to waste management and not make as many mistakes as other nations have. My heart gets heavy at the thought of future (and present) generations never knowing clean, safe environments. I hope we never forget what we once had – it is not yet lost.

1 Comment
  1. Janan Dave
    Janan Dave

    A great and thoughtful read–thanks for making me stop to think about all this a bit more. Huge effects on our land and our bodies are at stake. Also, funny enough, I noticed last week that we have a bag of Tang powder in our office–most people seem to opt for the fresh orange juice from the cart outside, though 🙂

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