Where Has All My Garbage Gone?

January 15, 2001

I come from one of the most recycling-conscious states in America. Vermont was one of the first to put a five-cent refund on aluminum cans and has developed into a recycling paradise since. I am a born and bred recycler.

When I moved to Thailand, I literally panicked about my trash. I was so used to recycling that every time I polished off a can of Sprite I felt guilty. I observed with an eagle eye what happened to all of it. Now I feel like I need a huge white-board with circles and arrows pointing in every direction to be able to illustrate the amazing routes that my once possessions take.

After but a few weeks in Thailand I realized that most of my trash was being taken somewhere by someone before the garbage men showed up. I noticed that my first maid (a story unto itself) was picking hundreds of odd things out of the trash every week. A scrap of soap, a piece of string, empty water bottles, jars with lids, she carried them all home with her every day.

So I150101k1.jpg started piling all of my ‘it could be useful’ garbage onto the counter before disposing of it, pointing at each item and asking, “Do you want this? This? This?” I was surprised. She took almost everything.

After she vacuumed my computer’s hard drive, had a nice afternoon playing with my makeup, Q-tips, and toiletries, and basically started driving me nuts, it was time to say goodbye. But she left me with a very good idea. I started separating all of my trash into different categories.

I now have bags for bottles, cans, newspapers, and shopping bags. I have boxes for unwanted clothing, old and defunct towels, reusable tin boxes once containing cookies, and general scraps of life. My downstairs closet is an absolute mess.

A lot of my extras go to the Thai family that now lives with us and works for us. They take the empty water bottles and plastic shopping bags back to the countryside when they visit their family in Isaan, a remote area in eastern Thailand on the150101k2.jpg border of Laos. The bottles are used to store water and the plastic bags are reused at the very small shop his father runs there. They also get my extra food (often a vegetable shopping experiment gone awry) and many of the ‘freebies’ I pick up along the way while shopping in Thailand.

My new telephone came with a free desk lamp. My favourite juice container came strapped with neon pink or blue cloth tissue box covers for a few months. After grocery shopping you can proceed to the ‘shopping rewards’ counter, where one can receive such goodies as small glass bowls, snack packets, bottles of water, calendars, pencils, calculators, breath mints, and toilet paper. When you fill up your car at the gas station you can expect a pack of chips, a small container of juice, a bottle of water, or some breathe mints. I take it all and either use it or redistribute it.

I bring my stale bread, pasta, and other dinner scraps out to the front of the house where the street dogs gleefully150101k3.jpg receive them. I have learned that they do not appreciate potatoes and sometimes there is an argument or two over who gets what. Green table scraps left over from chopping and peeling vegetables go to the family of roosters and ducks living in our backyard.

Other things that I think may be of use to someone, e.g., an old pair of shoes, a broken bag, old clothes, etc., I put into a bag and under the cover of darkness I walk into the local park and drop it off and leave it to a game of ‘finders-keepers.’

My old computer and other old computers I have gathered along the way get brought up to a school in Sangkhlaburi. They are somehow brought back to life and used by students who are learning how to type.

After all of this, I still manage to have a lot of stuff left over. Visitors at my house know about my boxes, so they leave all their unwanted extras with me before heading off to the airport. Pretty soon, my boxes are magically full again. Everything manages to find a good home.

If you ever get the chance to check out a flea market in Thailand, you will notice that there is a lot of ‘junk’ for sale. A broken belt, the sole of a shoe, a handful of screws, a collection of rubber bands, you name it. One man’s garbage is indeed another man’s treasure. If you are ever in Thailand and see someone in a bright green ‘I LOVE VERMONT’ T-shirt, well now you might know where it came from…

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