Who is to blame?: No trash talk please

Swe Zaw Oo asks what might be standing in the way of a trash-free Yangon.

On the streets. On the roadsides. Behind shops. In alleys. In the drainage grates. Around dumpsters. Around your feet. We throw away trash like we are living on one giant pile of trash. Trash is inescapable. Who is to blame? Us, the city dwellers. We should dispose of garbage properly.

Gandhi said, “you must be the change you wish to see the world.”  Big changes start at the individual level. If proper trash disposal is carried out by every individual who lives in Yangon, the city will be trash-free in no time.

The problem is that trash bins are rare things, at least in my district. I am talking about the legit ones — not those piles of trash thrown on random street corners as if they are natural dumpsters. Once these piles appear, nobody cleans them. It is not a convenient thing for anyone to do if they have to collect trash outside then carry it all the way home because trash bins are unavailable on the streets.

Initially, I thought all we needed to solve this problem was for the Yangon City Development Committee (YCDC), the administrative body of Yangon, to systematically place trash bins throughout the city. Who was to blame? I blamed YCDC. At that time, I was convinced that people would have guilty consciences about carelessly throwing away trash. I believed that the root cause was not the action of the people, but the lack of infrastructure. I believed having trash bins would solve this.

Recently, YCDC put orange dumpsters around the city. And for the first few days, my district seemed to have less trash. Or so I thought. At nights, I heard the clatters of metal and plastic hitting the ground. Some days were louder.

In no time, these brand-new orange trash bins turned into broken ones. The lids were gone. The wheels were gone. In some cases, the entire bin was gone. It must be the dumpster thieves! They ripped off parts of trash bins to sell the metal scraps to factories. Poverty and desperation just seem to strip some people of their dignity and conscience. What would YCDC do if all the new bins are being destroyed? Easy. They stop replacing them. The problems are equally created by the irresponsible public (sometimes driven by poverty) and the inept management of YCDC on city waste disposal.

Day by day, the broken trash bins are left unfixed. Trash starts to pile around them. The streets are again filled with trash. I believe positive social change could also be driven by organizations, private or public, leveraging on their network and influence.  Who is to blame? I blame a lack of good community initiatives that could have set things into motion.

A few campaigns pick a day for their members to collectively pick up trash in populated areas. Corporate Social Responsibility is key to drive the positive change. The campaign volunteers wear beautiful logo-printed uniforms that have words like “Let’s make our city trash free”. Their PR is great. A brilliant example to follow. But sadly, some great examples remain as examples, if there is no follow-up. As an Indian proverb says, “a dog’s crooked tail can never be straightened.” These activities hold no remarkable impact for the long term. People keep throwing away trash as carelessly as they used to. These populated areas are again filled with trash. Who is left to blame?

Without laws and regulations on garbage disposal, the trash will stay. Or so I thought. Then I see brick walls around the city that have graffiti on them that says, “do not throw away garbage. Fine 5000 Kyats.” Beneath there are piles of trash. Who is to blame?

From trash to everything else that is broken in our society, we go around finding scapegoats to blame. So, you tell me now. Where do we start?

Swe Zaw Oo is a young professional in energy industry, He majored in Sustainable Business and graduated from Green Mountain College in USA in 2016. He currently resides in Singapore. He loves traveling and experiencing different cultures and cuisines.