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Trash Etiquette: Jita Test, Day 7

This collection of trash is what most expect from Jita communities: lots of Wheel laundry detergent and Lux, with a scattering of other wrappers. As it turned out, the proportions were quite different.

The most obvious and likely objection to the Jita system is that the poor women they employ will be causing an increase in the rubbish generated through the goods they sell. So, a key objective for our research will be to assess whether Jita sites generate more rubbish–or even a different kind of rubbish–than places where Jita is not operating.  The challenge for this trip was to test a method for doing that.

We did conduct a literature review first, as good academics are supposed to do. We looked for earlier work on household-level garbage collection, especially hoping to get tips on measurement.  But no.  Most reports focus at the neighborhood or even municipal level.   Loads are collected by garbage trucks, or taken from a landfill with forklifts, for analysis.

So we were on our own.

We decided to ask the respondents to put their rubbish in a plastic bag we provided, which we would promise to collect after two days. We intended to weigh the contents of each bag, then somehow measure the volume before photographing the contents for cataloging.

Like good, germ-fearing Americans, we planned for the research team to wear masks and rubber gloves, then clean up with Wet Wipes. But, being Americans in England, we had no idea where to get the scales, bags, gloves, masks, and other equipment we would need. And I learned long ago not to waste valuable field time shopping for things that might not even be available in the destination country.

And so it happened that I found myself, a week before the trip, standing in the aisle at Target in Austin, with my mother and my sister Kathy, strategizing about Bangladeshi trash collection.  As it happened, I was unexpectedly routed through Texas on my way back from that ITC meeting in Mexico City. So there we were, at the retail-rich intersection of MoPac and Highway 186, trying to guess how much garbage rural Bangladeshis would put out in two days and buy accordingly.

We ended up with two-liter clear plastic paint buckets (from Home Depot) with volume marks already on the side, to be weighed on Soft Touch food scales, from Target’s popular line of kitchen gadgets.  We got these weird blue gloves and some painter’s masks, also at the Home Depot. At JoAnn’s Fabrics, we picked up soft tape measures, though I was unsure what we would use them for (we didn’t), I thought they might come in handy.  Then index cards for recording  and photographing the stuff.  Plus Glad bags with the red ties built in. And Wet Wipes.  Done.

These two bags represent two days’ trash from 20 households, about half from the Jita village and half from the control.

Our respondents of course thought we were nuts when we handed them the Glad bags and asked them to save all packaging discarded for two days. They tolerantly smiled and agreed.

The first day of collection, Nil and I began at the home of the young woman with the cute shoes. While Nil conducted the interview, I set up my materials, in full view of the respondent.  I felt suddenly self-conscious about the gloves and mask. Gearing up like that seemed to imply that her ordinary household rubbish was extraordinarily toxic–wasn’t that insulting? So I weighed, sorted, and photographed with my face and hands bare.

Then I wasn’t sure what to do with her trash. Having asked her to save this stuff and then sifted through it so thoroughly, it seemed like it now belonged in my provenance and was my responsibility to dispose. Yet the trash suddenly seemed like something as deeply private as an underwear drawer and I thought maybe she wanted it back.  So I asked her, through Nil. She looked at me like I was from Mars (or maybe I just felt in that moment like I had been dropped from Mars) and said she would keep it and get rid of it herself.  I was relieved, as I wasn’t sure how I would dispose of it, anyway.

Nil, one of our research assistants, perched on a respondent’s bed, asking questions. Her girlfriend-at-a-slumber-party manner went a long way toward building rapport with the ladies. Many of them exchanged phone numbers with her when we left.

I repeated the procedure sans gloves and masks at the next stop.  But there the trash had some kind of wet goo all over it.  It was probably shampoo, actually, but I really felt the need for Wet Wipes. I was afraid again of insulting my respondent, so I stepped outside to clean my hands.

That night, I asked my colleagues whether they had used the gloves and masks.  Everyone used only the gloves except Jim who went without entirely (Jim was drafted for Viet Nam in 1970 and now cannot be made to fear anything, not even somebody else’s gooey rubbish).

Over the course of the next week, the methodology evolved.  We were having a lot of trouble getting our respondents alone–the mother-in-law always hovered nearby like some giant bird of prey– and we needed candid answers.  So, one strategy was to take the trash procedure (which we had now dubbed “EIRA” for Environmental Impact Rubbish Audit”) outdoors where everyone else could watch.  My projections about trash privacy had been misplaced (the ladies didn’t seem to care) and the theatre of English-speaking white people measuring garbage on Soft Touch food scales while wearing blue rubber gloves was enough to cause a useful distraction.

But after the incident with the imam, we decided to minimize our presence by taking the rubbish back to our lodging for processing.  I wonder what the hotel cleaning people thought about the neatly-tied Glad bags we left behind.

This collection was typical: sweet snacks, a bag of salt, various papers, two small shampoo sachets, and a pair of medicine boxes with blister packs from used pills.

But there wasn’t much of it.  Neither site generated very much garbage, nor did it seem very different in content.  Still, we were surprised by what was in there.  Most salient was the junk food: pop, chips, candy.  Next were the medicines, most of which you would need a prescription for in the US or UK.  But you can walk into a pharmacy and buy anything in Bangladesh and these folks were apparently doing just that because their trash was full of used blister packs for pills and boxes that were medical rather than over-the-counter drugs.  So, I would speculate that, between the diet and medicinal questions raised here, the issue of health, rather than vanity, will take first place in the larger study.

There were, however, used packages of fairness cream, as well as henna packs and shampoo sachets. And lots of laundry detergent, as expected.  But these were probably matched in quantity by the cigarettes and bags of salt.

The categorizing of goods discarded will not be as difficult as I had imagined–the stuff shows a pretty strong pattern.  And there is certainly packaging being discarded, which is an environmental concern. But the nature of the consumption patterns raises unexpected issues and likely will change the trajectory of our inquiry.


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