Trashing Creation … in Nepal and the US
by Shannon Casey
The driver honks repeatedly, anxious to get over the Bagmati River as quickly as possible. It is March, and since the monsoons have not yet begun in Nepal, the stench emanating from the river is at its seasonal high. Most foreigners are immediately overwhelmed by such jarring auditory and olfactory stimuli, but since I have already traveled throughout India, I have mentally prepared myself for the realities of being in a developing country once again. After several minutes, we finally make it over the bridge. In spite of our progress, the driver continues to honk intermittently all the way to my host family's house.
Aside from the family's two dogs, my host mom, Nita, is the first to greet me. Once I have had some time to rest and get settled in my room, she gives me a tour of her home. It is three stories, built primarily from concrete, and painted a vibrant teal.
When Nita first shows me her kitchen, she expresses with some embarrassment that it surely doesn't compare with my kitchen in the US. In truth, Nita's kitchen isn't much smaller than the kitchen in the duplex in which I grew up. Of course, there are other differences. The open shelves in Nita's kitchen are packed with unmarked food storage containers, and her primary appliance is a two-burner stove similar to the one that my family used to take on camping trips. What strikes me most, however, is the small bucket lined with a thin plastic bag that serves as the trashcan. It is the size of a restroom wastebasket. Is this tiny trashcan really adequate? I wonder to myself. It is hard to fathom how this is possible given that the standard kitchen trashcan in the Western world is a two-gallon stainless steel device operated by a foot pedal.
Over the three months I live in Nepal with the Thapa family, I spend many evenings in the kitchen talking with Nita as she prepares dinner. She gives me small tasks like peeling garlic or chopping onions, but mostly I am there for the conversation. I cherish the opportunity to learn more about Nepal, and Nita simply enjoys having company. "You are like my medicine," she says, referring to me as her foreign daughter.
As I observe Nita prepare dinner each night, I realize that the lack of food packaging is a major factor in the practicality of having such a small kitchen trashcan. Milk is packaged not in bulky cartons but in a minimal plastic sac. Nita purchases vegetables almost daily and carries them from the street vendors to her home in thin plastic bags. These bags are saved and primarily reused as trashcan liners. Rice is stored in a large blue barrel, and every other week one of Nita's sons hauls a large sack of rice up the stairs to refill it. The lack of packaging is impressive, but Nepal still has a tremendous problem with trash disposal.
To begin with, no efficient trash collection system exists. The majority of trash is not collected at all but either burned or piled on the side of the road. A notice painted on one wall threatens a $145 fine if anyone dumps trash there. The large pile of garbage in front of the wall clearly indicates that the warning is ignored. Nita simply explains, "It is a very strict rule, but no one is following that."
According to one project seeking to implement a recycling program in Nepal, "Only around 17% of urban households and 2% of low-income households have their trash collected by waste collectors." In Nepal, a waste collector is a young man who piles as much trash as he can fit into the cart attached to the back of his bicycle. Unfortunately, the collected trash is frequently then dumped in the Bagmati River, the end result being just as undesirable as leaving the garbage to rot on the side of the road. Needless to say, Nepal's challenges with waste collection and management have created both health and environmental hazards.
I once heard a pastor back in the US explain that as Christians, we have a collective calling to explore and protect the earth. This phrase, "explore and protect," was his unique way of summarizing God's commands in Genesis. Since traveling is one of my passions, exploring the world comes easily to me. What I struggle with is the command to protect God's creation. I am quickly overwhelmed by the impossibility of this task. It is a ceaseless one, and it seems I am constantly barraged with discouraging reports highlighting the lack of any significant progress.
On my last weekend in Nepal, I was able to spend a few hours reflecting on this in the Garden of Dreams, an oasis in the heart of Kathmandu. The garden provides escape from the city's pollution and chaos, but I was unable to completely forget about the reality that exists outside the garden's walls. As I wandered by the pond, I came across a pink lotus flower in full bloom. The lotus became a timely symbol reminding me that no matter how muddy life's waters are, with faithfulness one can rise above and contribute a bit of beauty to the world. I internalized this message of hope and was encouraged to heed Paul's exhortation in Galatians 6:9—"Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up."
Now that I am back in the US, I find that my experience living in a developing country continues to impact me in ways that are closer to home. In the US, our garbage is efficiently whisked away, leaving little evidence of our obsession with materialism. Since we don't see the weighty ramifications of our excess, we continue to, as Dave Ramsey puts it, "buy things we don't need with money we don't have to impress people we don't like." The fact that we remain far removed from the unpleasant consequences of our consumption makes it more challenging to be good stewards of our money and material possessions. This problem, though less visible, is just as repugnant as the trash that pollutes Nepal's roads and rivers. This too has weighty ramifications, and it warrants serious consideration.
It is easy to get caught up in exploring exciting new places that hold the promise of adventure. Traveling is an invaluable experience, but I have realized that there are also many local issues that need to be explored. Nepal's waste disposal problem is much more visible than the overconsumption epidemic in the US, but both are important issues. Whether at home or abroad, we must explore and protect the world we have been given to steward.
Shannon Casey is an intermittent traveler, writer, photographer, and musician. She is also pursuing a master's degree in Physician Assistant Studies at the University of St. Francis in Albuquerque, NM.