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Photo by Kate Gross-Whitaker

Guilty Consumption

What did we do for last Friday’s global climate strike? We littered the Chinese countryside with garbage.

While the world has embraced the climate change strike, with a reported 7.6 million people mobilizing, we were bunkered up in a small village in rural Yunnan. All the students have pledged to stay off social media for the month of September and instructor’s access to world news has been stifled by the government’s tightening control over VPNs (virtual private networks) that usually help us get over the Great Firewall. To say the least, we haven’t been keeping up to date with global movements as much as we’d like, but we have focused awareness on our own personal actions. Rural areas in China are far from the front lines of climate change and obviously not the major contributors either. But we’ve been able to observe and more acutely participate in one of the major problems of our planet – trash.

In Bangdong Village, where we’ve spent our last two weeks, we’ve become very aware of the daily lives of the villagers here; their livelihoods – intimately connected with the weather and ebb and flow of tea prices; their consumption – almost exclusively raw ingredients obtained from the market, picked in the wild, or grown themselves; and their waste.

One afternoon, after speaking with the village mayor at length about the tea process and recent village developments, we asked him if there is anything we can help the village with while we were here. “Go around the village and pick up trash,” he replied. Eager to help in any way we could, we promptly agreed. But my mind raced with questions. Was the mayor just asking us to do this because of complaints from past Dragon’s groups? What would the villagers think when they saw us picking up their trash? And what the heck would we do with it?

Recently, my colleague Matt Chitwood, wrote about the dilemmas of waste disposal in the area, but this is not just a local problem. The US itself is the worst producer of waste per capita in the world, creating three times the global average. What happens to all this garbage? Burned, buried, dumped in the ocean or another country?

To become more aware of this issue, our group took on another challenge over the last two weeks. We collected all the trash we created (except for certain toiletries) for our entire stay in the village. On Thursday, the time finally came for us to go around the village picking up trash. As expected the villagers looked at us like we had two heads. But we continued, because we’ve been know that trash goes in the trashcan and throwing it on the ground is “uncivilized”.

So now we had collected two piles of trash. One from walking around the village picking up litter off the ground, and one from our own personal use over two weeks.  Both piles are made up of mostly packaging from processed foods and drinks. All of this trash would not have been here 20 years ago before capitalism and mass consumption followed the opening of roads to this secluded area.

So we were then faced with the tough decision of what to do with all this trash we’ve collected. The villager’s have two main options in dealing with trash. They can burn it or drive it down the road to the “dump” where a truck now brings most of the village’s trash. Or we could continue to carry it with us back to Kunming, or potentially all the way back to the US. After careful consideration, most people decided to take their personal collection of trash back to Kunming with hopes that it would be disposed of “properly”, and for the trash we collected off the streets of Bangdong we decided to go check out the dumping station down the road. We all piled into a caged-in pickup truck and started driving down the road. After about ten minutes the driver stops and says, “throw your garbage here, it’s better than any other place.” Our hearts stop momentarily. In front of us is a steep drop off the side of the road into a small gully, lush with forest. At the bottom of the gully there’s a bit of trash and construction materials. We stood their silently and weighed our options. Do we burn it? Go to the other cliff? Throw it in the Mekong River at the bottom of the road? In fact, our habitual consumption had already nailed our fate. “One…Two…Three,” several bags of trash are flung into the air and roll down the gully, scattering the forest floor with trash we had picked up from the village.