Defining Trash


Jodhpur, Rajasthan | This I Wear

There is a very clear difference between culture shock and experiencing an overwhelming culture. In my case, it is the latter as I knew what to expect when I arrived in India. I expected to give up many comforts from home, to experience an infinite influx of new sights/sounds/tastes/smells, and to wear bug spray 24/7. I expected to binge on souvenirs, to travel in rickshaws, and to see a drastic contrast between the wealthy and the poor. I also anticipated that there was just going to be a lot of people.

Given the sheer size of the Indian population, it is not surprising that there is a waste problem. Trash doesn’t disappear here – it remains a part of the community even after it has left the home. In fact, if there is a trash pickup service, it is probably an informal one. Trash picking is a livelihood for significant numbers of people. It is not uncommon to see a landfill excavated for anything of value to be reclaimed and sold or reused in creative ways.

Even beyond the trash pickers, reuse is part of the culture here. In Rajasthan, the textile capital of India, shops overflow with beautiful quilts, scarves and fabrics. Looking more closely at many of these products, it is easy to see how scraps from one item become the appliquéd camels on a patchwork bedspread or recycled sari fabrics are sewn together to create new items in a tradition known as Kantha. More formal recycling efforts are led by such organizations as Goonj that uses textile recycling both to create employment and to provide essential goods to those in need throughout India.

I, conscious of my limited experience, would like to propose that the main difference between India and the U.S. in this situation is in our definitions of trash. Let’s for a moment, consider the lowly dandelion: To the owner of the perfectly manicured lawn, it is a weed to be destroyed. To someone else, it’s a beautiful flower. It’s only a weed if you choose to see it as disruptive or inconvenient, and the same view applies to trash.

Waste is a problem in the U.S. even if we can’t see it as easily as on the streets of India, so the challenge to reduce what we send to the curb already exists. Will it only be when we are faced with limited resources and a visible pile of trash in our neighborhood that we will be willing (or forced) to reconsider our concept of waste? I hope not.

If you’re interested in exploring more sides to this topic, a few additional resources:
– Pietra Rivoli’s book, Travels of a T-shirt in the Global Economy (specifically the section on textile recycling and the secondhand clothing market in Africa)
– Patagonia’s Common Threads Initiative is using some unconventional methods to keep their products out of landfills

Comment below or tweet @ThisIWear and share how you define trash.

One more thing, apologies for the delay in posting! Writing and prepping a post is a bit more of a challenge for the time being, but I’ve got some great interviews that I hope to share soon.

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