January 16th was Teachers’ Day, and contrary to what one would think, teachers do not celebrate this day teaching. In fact, Teachers’ Day is a national holiday in Thailand. Here at Chiang Khong, this day was the best opportunity to take the girls on a short trip we had had in mind for weeks: We would take them to The Rubbish Mountain!
The idea originated as part of a project to improve the way we deal with domestic waste here at the centre. In spite of several attempts from various members of staff to get the girls to maintain the space as cleanly as possible and separate the rubbish from the recycling, they seemed not to care much about it. Over this last Christmas, as most of the girls and staff went on holidays, the rubbish area got totally out of control. Rubbish bags piled up one of top of another; plastic, glass and other waste mixed up in the bins, flies everywhere, and rubbish bags torn apart by the night cats searching for food.
Something had to be done about it.
We decided that we not only needed to recycle, but more importantly, we needed to reduce the amount of rubbish being produced in the first place. A close-up analysis of the town´s waste management system which, despite the fancy name, is rather close to non-existent, forced us to focus our efforts on reducing rather than on recycling.
Rubbish is managed in 3 ways here in Chiang Khong:
1. It is burned in small fires made by every individual household at the back of their garden.
2. Separated paper, plastic, and glass are sold to local middlemen who will sell it again several times to an unknown number of middlemen until the waste eventually reaches a recycling plant in the bigger cities.
3. Landfills and open dumping. Rubbish bags are simply dumped in an open air area usually in the outskirts of town.
These procedures are carried out in a mostly informal manner which makes it very difficult to engage the whole community into adopting environmentally friendly practices when disposing of their waste. However, we strongly believe in the power of individuals to change their surroundings by acting as role models to their friends, relatives, and community. And that is why we aim to inspire these twenty-one girls to be more responsible concerning their impact on the environment: so that they can pass on the message, unleashing a long chain of positive change.
We had tried to explain them many times about the 3R concept (Reduce, Reuse, Recycle), but it did not work because they only thought about it as another addition to their already busy schedule. They had to get out of the classroom and experience the consequences of their acts first hand. We agreed the landfill was the most eye-opening. It is basically an enormous open space in the middle of the mountains, right at the outskirts of town, where Chiang Khong citizens have been dumping their rubbish for years. A deep hole in the ground was initially dig, but after years of dumping, the hole has been filled up to the point where the trash has now formed a mountain. And this is why many people here know it as “the rubbish mountain.”
We did not tell them where we were going. In fact, some of them thought we were going on a fun trip somewhere around town. We jumped into the van and when the driver stopped us right by the entrance of the landfill, the girls could not believe it!
“Whaaaat? Whyyyyy?” they asked.
Some of them even refused to get out of the van as flies were everywhere and the smell of rubbish was potent. Finally we managed to convince the twenty girls to enter the dumpsite area and have a walk around. As soon as they entered, their first reaction was to quickly cover their mouth and nose with whatever they had at hand, a scarf, the sleeve of their hoodies, etc. But then we explained what this activity was all about. The real challenge was to walk around the dumpsite for about 15 minutes and do was three things: Look & Smell & Think. It seems pretty easy, but it really proved an enormous challenge to get twenty adolescent girls to confront their community’s waste.
In spite of having mostly grown up in rural areas, these girls have all become used to simply disposing of their waste in a bin and not worrying much about where that rubbish ends up. In the case of hill tribe villages in the area, people live with rubbish dumped everywhere and do not seem to see a problem with it. Food waste is commonly used to feed animals such as chicken or fish, and other types of trash would simply be dumped at the back of the house. At present, it is easier to find a few bins near the local shop or the schools. However, has anyone wondered where this rubbish ends up?
All over the world, and throughout many different communities and cultures, many people seem to think that their rubbish just disappears. And this is exactly what we want to avoid. We do not want these girls to continue eluding their responsibility to the environment. We want them to learn to take responsibility for their actions and develop creative minds so that they can come up with ways to minimize their ecological impact.
And so the 15 minutes at the dumpsite felt like an eternity. The motto was continuously repeated by the staff: Look & Smell & Think. Still, many of the girls tried all kinds of ways to avoid doing this. Ignoring the problem was certainly easier than confronting it. However, we actively encouraged them to leave their fears behind and give it a go.
This activity confronted the girls’ most basic instincts. In fact, some of them could not stand it and became upset or nauseous. We encouraged them to reflect upon the way their bodies were reacting to this man-made atrocity. We also urged the girls to look carefully around them and identify the kinds of things that made up that mountain of rubbish. The first thing that caught their attention was plastic. In fact, plastic was everywhere, in the form of bags, bottles, containers, chairs, packaging, etc. We also found many, many tetrabricks, those small boxes that usually contain milk or fruit juice. This exercise was very interesting because it proved the unsustainability of materials such as plastic.
On our walk around the compound, we met a little girl of no more than five years of age. She was sitting on an old and dirty mattress that had been abandoned there and playing with some items of rubbish she had found. Apparently, she was waiting there for her mother, who was working hard under the hot sun, scavenging in the rubbish to find something worth selling for a few pennies. As our girls saw this child they began to understand that this was not a game and that the rubbish we produce directly affects people in the community. The story of this small child deeply moved some of the girls and as we moved along, they became more and more reflective on everything they had experienced, which was a good sign!!
Not more than 100 metres away we stopped to contemplate a beautiful landscape with cows feeding on the field, mountains, green trees, and birds singing in the background.
For the last time we asked the girls to Look & Smell & Think. They all answered at once, “It´s beautiful!!” We did not need to ask them to compare one setting and another. It was pretty evident. Hell and heaven separated only by a few metres.
Today´s activity had come to an end. The girls came back to the van mostly in silence, probably shocked by all the different emotions they had experienced that day. We only asked them one last thing:
“Now it´s up to you to change this dirty reality; what could you possibly do about it? Think and reflect upon everything you´ve seen and felt here today. It´s in your hands to change it!”