All for Convenience’s Sake

Every Mumbaikar has a friend who is never far away. He has a way of greeting you the moment you step out onto the streets. At times his presence is very strong. At other times he’s a passive companion. He is a friend we affectionately call garbage.

We are all well aware of terms like filth, dirt, trash, kachara. That’s one of the defining traits of being a Mumbaikar. Only a few other cities can boast such a deep knowledge of these words. That’s ‘cos we’re so deep in it…

And when we get too deep, what do we do? We burn it. Oh, and I’m not talking about the waste disposal unit, I’m talking about individual societies and people. They happily, and obliviously, add to all the pollution that is already present in the environment. It is a common practice now, to burn all the dead leaves and other waste that collects. Every single day, on your journey to work or school, look around, I’m pretty certain you will find a heap of garbage burning merrily. Most of the time these isolated fires will belong to homeless people on the streets, who have no other means of disposing of their waste, or are used to provide warmth and light. But many a time, the fires would have been started by a society gardener or the person responsible for putting the trash out for the garbage vans. Rag-pickers, too, set fire to garbage heaps to find copper and other metals. They make their livelihood by selling these scraps to whoever may be interested. Their plight we might be able to sympathize with, but what annoys me most is that the reasons garbage is burnt is often simply for convenience! Common reasons often include the garbage van arriving too early in the morning, or the bin being too far away etc, making it an inconvenience for the disposer to make such an effort. Of course, they may be unaware of the harmful effects, the pollutants that are released, and may even have good reasons for why they are doing so, but that doesn’t take away from the fact that the majority of the cases are simply an act of laziness, and the toxins released are still harmful.

Most of us too are unaware of exactly which toxins are released. Basically, there are 3 types of dangerous products:

  • Toxic Gases:Along with yours truly Carbon-dioxide, other carcinogenic gases like formaldehyde, methane, sulfur-dioxide, hydrogen-chloride, dioxins and furans are released too. Dioxins and furans are especially dangerous, and are able to cause diseases in the lowest of doses. They are often linked to cancer and birth defects.
  • Particulate Matter (soot): These are particles that are too large for it to be safe for human breathing. Burning trash in such a manner is dangerous, because the burning doesn’t occur at a temperature that is high enough. This leads to incomplete combustion, and the products of incomplete combustion are hazardous as they can act as carriers for carcinogenic material, and can cause emphysema, chronic bronchitis, and cancer.
  • Ash Residue: The ash left at the end of the burning is almost always harmful. It can also contaminate surrounding areas and any water source close by. Even the lives of all the city’s stray residents are in danger, since animals will go and scavenge any source for food.

(These facts were taken from a study performed by the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in conjunction with the New York State Departments of Environmental Conservation and Health in 1998)

And all these dangers go unnoticed both by the people who are burning the trash, and by the passersby (which includes all of us). Unknowingly, we are all breathing in chemicals that are having a direct effect on our health. Is it any surprise that diseases are running rampant?

When I happened to pluck up my courage and ask my society gardener, he told me that the ash gets absorbed by the soil faster (this is the ash left by burning dead leaves only though, so it doesn’t contain harmful matter). Even if this is true, it still doesn’t take away from the fact that the smoke released adds to the pollution already present, and the incomplete combustion produces carbon-monoxide, a chemical that drastically reduces the oxygen carrying capacity of blood. In the end, this was simply a matter of convenience for the gardener, much faster than having to make a compost heap that takes a long time to decompose, but the ramifications of his actions affect a whole multitude of people. It is thus in our own interest to have people change their ways. Although a compost heap may be a time- consuming process, it is the cleanest method, leaving no pollutants and causing no damage. It is the natural process by which matter is recycled, the way chosen by God when he created the earth. You and I don’t need to be gardening enthusiasts, it only takes the effort of piling up biodegradable matter in a corner (preferably under a layer of mud to avoid the flies), and the effort of WAITING – the essential human flaw. The majority of co-operative societies and individuals are guilty of this. If we are not the perpetrators, then we are accomplices at the very least for not opening our mouth and stopping this.

And if the waste includes other materials like plastics, then all the more reason not to burn it. Make sure it gets into a garbage van is all you have to do. You don’t even need to say goodbye.

Disposing of garbage properly is quite a subject. Each material needs to be segregated and treated differently. There is a proper way to dispose of e-waste (televisions, mobile phones etc) and a proper way to dispose of plastics and metals too. Lack of a proper system and lack of awareness of the existence of such a system is proving to be a major obstacle, but as citizens of this country, it is our duty to ensure that such systems are put in place and are obeyed. We cannot always blame the government we have elected to solve all the problems. As the people of this nation, we must raise this issue and ensure it gets the attention that is required.

Maybe one day we too can say that India will have to IMPORT garbage like Sweden does, and won’t be labeled as naïve optimists for saying so. Until then, don’t go burning your trash.


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