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Talking Trash




If you’ve spent much time out and about in Thailand than you’ve probably seen one or two of these guys along the side of the road: the ubiquitous blue trash barrel. They rarely are empty, and in fact are usually overflowing with an amazing variety of flotsam and jetsam. The aroma that wafts from these barrels is just as amazing, though somewhat difficult to describe. You really do have to be standing downwind from one of these to appreciate the good fortune of having a good old fashioned head cold! Unfortunately my wife and I are rarely affected by any ailment that dulls the sense of smell. In fact it is our acute olfactory sense that leads us to this little Thai “slice of life”.

The problem begins with the fact that there is simply not enough trash barrels in our neighborhood to accommodate the volume of refuse produced between garbage pickups. The result is that the area around the trash barrels is always covered with some pretty nasty debris. Although the soi dogs enjoy this pungent “repast”, it is enough on a hot day to make you run inside and close the windows.

The situation is not helped that many Thais do not use trash bags. They simply dump in their garbage. There are plenty of garbage bags available at Big C, Tesco Lotus, and in many small shops throughout Lampang. They are not expensive either. Even my notoriously tight-fisted teerak doesn’t hesitate to shell out a few baht for a package.

My darling wife has come a long way since leaving her home in Buriram for over eight years of domestic bliss with moi. When I first visited her home ten years ago I was astounded at her family’s notion of trash disposal. In many cases “disposal” simply meant throwing it on the ground outside the house. Cans, bottles (often broken), rusty bits of metal (sharp ones I might add!) along with vegetable peelings, chicken bones, and other unnamable items all found their way outside. It was a true Issan paradise lost. At first in a foolish spirit of trying to help out, I would spend a few hours cleaning the yard up from stem to stern. I might as well have tried to clean up a toxic waste dump! As fast as I cleaned, new refuse was deposited; sometimes right where I was stooped over picking something up! Albert Einstein once defined mental illness as repeating the same action over and over again, hoping for a different result. Dumb I might but not that dumb! I simply gave up the idea of sanitation there as a lost cause. Let’s face it, the definition of a Thai trash can is “wherever a Thai is at the moment”!

Okay enough preliminaries; let’s get to what this tale is all about: the lack of trash barrels in our neighborhood. My wife and I wanted an additional one in our vicinity. We were tired of not having a place to deposit our bags of garbage. Merely balancing them on an overflowing barrel didn’t work that well. Inevitably the soi dogs pulled them off and bit them open, strewing garbage everywhere.

We decided to do the “right thing” and see our local pu-yai-bahn and put the request to him. For those of you readers who have never lived here in LOS I should say that a pu-yai-bahn is a kind of neighborhood ombudsman who helps with day to day problems. We were on pretty good terms with ours. We had him and his family over for the party that accompanied our house warming, and we had come over to pay our condolences when his father suddenly passed away. We thought that a simple request for a trash barrel would be a piece of cake. It didn’t work out that way at all. This guy was flabbergasted at the very idea of asking the municipality for another trash barrel. We might as well have been asking for the moon and stars. Apparently our audacious request was beyond the pale”! We even offered to pay for the damned thing, but this suggestion was immediately dismissed. So stop your selfish complaining, go home and just live with it! And so we slunk home with our tail between our legs, and just went on with status quo right? Not exactly. Okay we couldn’t get the municipality to get us a new trash barrel. However there was a way we could not only dispose of our garbage but be green to boot! Yes, I’m talking about recycling and composting.

The recycling part was pretty easy. There was a guy who pushed a cart through the neighborhood poking through the trash for anything that could earn a baht or two anyway, so simply decided to separate and bundle up anything recyclable and just give it to the guy. We immediately organized bins for glass, plastic and cardboard. It was amazing to see how much of that stuff we were throwing out each week.

The composting took a bit more planning. If it was up to my sweetheart she would have simply tossed all the real garbage into a pile, preferably somewhere downwind! I of course vetoed that idea and went for something a little bit more scientific, and sanitary. I went shopping and found two large concrete “pipes”, each about a meter and a half wide and deep. The next step was to dig a hole in the ground and bury the first piece. You won’t be surprised to learn that I didn’t dig a hole. One great thing that you’ve got to love about this country is that there is always someone ready with a pick and shovel. All you’ve got to do is point where and how deep you want it. Some of my current students who think education is one big joke will no doubt be gainfully employed in this trade in the coming years. Our hole was in our “backyard” that wasn’t really our back yard. This is in fact a strip of municipal land running alongside an irrigation canal. We, along with everyone else, have planted gardens there. In Thailand possession is 99% of the law anyway!

Once the first piece was well buried, the second piece went on top. Now we needed a cover to keep the flies away and any odors in. Then it was time to visit a local tinsmith who for a couple hundred baht made a light but sturdy cover. Okay we have a hole. What are we going to put in it? Well to start with our real garbage: vegetable and fruit peelings and uneaten leftovers of all variety. Next came a layer of grass clippings followed by a layer of soil. When available cow manure went in both dry and “fresh”. This being Thailand there are always cows wandering through our neighborhood. After adding some water and a bacterial digester to start things cooking and we were good to go! Now before I start getting e-mails from “experts” on composting, I know that is not the ideal method. You really need to keep turning everything over to aerate from time to time. For us however this is good enough. We have greatly reduced what needs to go into the trash barrel, we are being good Green Citizens of Planet Earth, and in about a year we should have some might fine humus to go into the garden. Once again we have adapted to life here in Thailand. Not a bad deal for all concerned I must say.

Stickman's thoughts:

You'll have to change your pen name from Sawadee2000 to Mr. Green!