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Rag pickers in India - rummaging through garbage

Reverse culture shock can be more challenging to deal with than culture shock itself. That shock is amplified depending how different the place you’re travelling to is and the amount of time you stay away. When I first entered India there was the initial charge of sound, population, pollution, chaos. But that jolt faded after a couple of months—things just started to feel normal.

Though living in India brought countless hassles and headaches, it brought even more positive experiences and lessons. One of the most potent lessons I absorbed from the Indian people (and the same can be said for other developing nations though India is extreme because of its population) is the efficiency of the people at minimizing waste and utilizing whatever they have been given with gratitude rather than wasting it. Watching people rummage through garbage for scrap metal or anything of value prompted me to think about efficiency. I felt good about eating at restaurants, buying clothes and staying at guesthouses knowing that what was produced was produced much more efficiently.

In the period I was away, NRDC published their Wasted report, stating how 40 percent of food goes to waste. I was appalled by that figure. I knew there was a lot of waste, but I didn’t know it was that much. UGH. Is that grocery store really chucking out those carrot rejects for being “ugly.” What do they want—designer carrots with a well-coiffed blonde carrot-top? With undernourished homeless people sitting outside these same stores, it just does not make sense to waste food.

Though it does make perfect sense in a corporate kind of way. Waste is built into grocery stores’ business model. The NRDC report posits the following reasons why they waste: stores overstock food displays because they operate under the assumption that consumers are more likely to buy from overstocked displays, a practice that inevitably leads to wasting excess product and damaging goods at the bottom of the produce pyramids; stores want to present cosmetically perfect food to their customers (and not every carrot has been gifted with Scarlet Johansson looks, which means many get the toss); set pack sizes dictate how much a store has to buy (i.e. if they want to buy 60 apples but the case only comes in 100, they’re left with 40 extra); discarding ready-made food; discarding food on average two or three days before sell-by dates (which are different than best before dates); tossing goods with damaged packaging or that do not sell because they are unpopular or because a promotion has ended.

When I returned to visit North America after being away for three years I knew what to expect after living there for more than 30 years, but no matter what amount of mental processing power I directed at the whole waste issue, I just could not resolve it in my mind. I could not see why, individually and collectively, we would waste such a precious resource packed with natural life force and the effort of human labour, particularly when people are starving for lack of food. Why would our society let something like this happen when we could follow the lead of other industrialized nations like France who are fining supermarkets for wasting food or Italy who are incentivizing stores for donating rather than wasting.

I realized that the most effective thing I could personally do was to dumpster dive. To reclaim discarded food.

Returning to my hometown of Toronto I tried doing just that, but in the suburbs of the west end, all I was met with were locked dumpsters and chained fences. It was as if the grocery stores have erected a wall protecting their “garbage,” jealously guarding their precious resource, which they are then dumping away (and paying to dump, I might add).

I left the city and visited some friends throughout the U.S., doing some diving along the way. I had some luck finding open dumpsters and heaps of perfectly good food, packaged and in good shape. Anything from bunches of lettuce to tortilla chips—entire meals could be made from the food I found. Some of these dumpsters were behind fences, but they were easily climbed and unmonitored. But just about everywhere I went, most of the garbage was protected.

My last stop before heading back to Asia was California. I was in the picturesque seaside city of Monterey and did some hunting at the local big box grocery store. It was mid-evening and the stores had just closed. There was a lone car parked in the front lot.

I walked to the back and approached the first dumpster I saw. As I pulled open the lid to peer in, that same car from the front pulls up. “That’s hazardous waste,” a security guard in the unmarked car informs me in a calm but confident tone.

Though my belly did not get filled from the contents of that dumpster excursion, my sides were splitting from laughter. They pay someone to guard their treasure, which is supposed to be worthless garbage, except it’s considered even worse than garbage… it’s hazardous waste.

When I think of hazardous waste I think of barrels of toxic waste from nuclear power plants, a half life of a million years, not food. But maybe they’re right in labeling their food hazardous waste: With all the GM irradiated chemical crap filling the shelves it is hazardous to our health.

People pay top dollar for designer carrots not knowing that the store they’re buying from turns around and calls it hazardous waste. To a Westerner looking at a poor Indian ragpicker rummaging through a mountain of garbage, it could look otherworldly. But to an Indian ragpicker looking at someone from an affluent nation toss away the stuff we label “garbage” is just totally bizarre (the same can be applied to dumpster divers anywhere). Last year the Environment Minister in India recognized the service ragpickers are doing for both the country and the environment by offering an annual national award and cash prize to the three best ragpickers in the country. There you get awarded by a prominent politician. Here, you get hounded by a security guard. Funny thing how Westerners look at India as being a backwards country.

image: Dipak Shelare / Shutterstock.com

 

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