The other day, 30 minutes into our long, energy-sapping 12.5 hour bus trip from Mysore to Hospet, the bus conductor pointed to the two empty disposable coffee cups I was holding (remnants of a 6:30am pick-me-up at Mysore bus station) and motioned that I should chuck them out the window of the moving bus. “It’s okay,” I told him, prepared to hold onto the rubbish until I found a bin. “No, no,” he said with concern, motioning out the window, “is okay.” But I couldn’t do it. I crushed the cups instead and put them in an outside pocket of my backpack, earning a bemused look from the conductor.

This single incident highlights a number of dilemmas that travellers face while in countries such as India. The immense rubbish pollution and waste disposal problems here are blindingly obvious to our outside eyes, and most tourists would be loathe to unnecessarily add to those problems through their own actions while visiting, but it’s not easy.

It’s a gross over-simplification to conclude that Indian people are, by their nature, habitual litterbugs. We take it very much for granted in Australia that infrastructure allowing the easy disposal of rubbish will exist in most public places, and that the infrastructure is maintained and serviced. If I purchase a takeaway latte (oh, latte, how I miss thee) in Melbourne I can be certain that I won’t have to walk for very long before I find a bin for the empty cup. Further, I can be reasonably confident that the bin will be regularly emptied by the council and that my cup will end up in landfill. Not so in India. As I noted a couple of weeks back while visiting an elephant camp:

The camp also featured something rare in India: rubbish bins (shaped like elephants, mouths open to receive the rubbish.) However, the arses of the elephants used to be trapdoors for removal of the rubbish, but the doors are long gone and now the rubbish just streams out of the bin onto the ground to be blown away and never collected.

I have rarely seen evidence in the parts of India I’ve visited of a system to collect and dispose of rubbish in public places. Some smaller towns have bins like the ones at the elephant camp, and some of them even have functioning trapdoors at the bottom. But other than this, the best I’ve noticed is the haphazard existence of wide, low open barrels on street corners for the collection of rubbish. However, these barrels don’t seem to be systematically emptied, rather they mainly serve as feed containers for the roaming street cows (in the south especially, the bins often contain used banana leaves from restaurants.) I have spotted the odd rubbish truck driving around the streets in larger towns, and there is obviously some sort of system for domestic waste disposal, but an awful lot of household rubbish still seems to be burnt off.

Just as we in Australia have been conditioned all of our lives to “put it in the bin”, and the result of that conditioning is that I physically cannot bring myself to throw two tiny plastic espresso cups out of the window of a moving bus to join the rivers of rubbish already on the side of the road, the average Indian has been conditioned to accept that dropping their rubbish where they stand is, for all intents and purposes, their only option.

So what does a tourist to India, wishing to dispose of their rubbish responsibly, do? The quick answer seems to be that there is no good answer. Spykey and I have taken to collecting all rubbish that we produce while out and about and putting it in the hotel room’s bin upon our return. But as Lisa once noted, there’s no way for us to know if that rubbish ever makes it to landfill, and I have my serious doubts at times, but short of going to the landfill site ourselves there’s not much else we can do.

The other obvious strategy is to produce as little waste as possible, and Lisa and I do our best to reject excess food packaging, refuse plastic bags in shops, and things like that, but the two of us inevitably have a certain amount of stuff to chuck out each day.

Ultimately, I reckon you have to strike a balance between doing your best to avoid adding to the problem and working with the systems and circumstances with which you are presented. But what do you reckon?

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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