Waste disposal may not seem like a sexy topic for a blog post, but this isn’t a very sexy blog (in case you haven’t noticed). It feels like a pressing topic in a city that has a huge waste disposal problem, especially in what they call “municipal solid waste” – everyday trash. Ulaanbaatar has completely inadequate waste disposal facilities for a city its size—plus, the city is growing everyday—and people’s behavior is also wanting. This spring, Emma and I have both noticed a tremendous upsurge in the amount of litter around, and I’ve been thinking about the reasons why. Also, since I wrote my first waste disposal post, I’ve had a chance to learn a bit more about it, so I thought it was time for an update.
I hadn’t realized what strides many places in the US had taken in waste disposal until I started going to places where it wasn’t as much of a priority, or where waste disposal facilities were lacking. The first time I was really outside of the US and western Europe was when I went to Mexico for an archaeological survey project when I was 20 years old. We were in a small village about 20 miles north of Mexico City, and there was trash everywhere. We knew, because we were doing a survey, so we were sampling the artifacts found on the surface of the land over an area slightly larger than the village itself. We were looking for Aztec artifacts, but we found a lot of modern-day trash.
Usually when there’s a situation like that, people don’t have a system for putting trash in places where they won’t come across it later, like sanitary landfills (which are built so that waste doesn’t get out into the surrounding area) or incinerators (which burn it and usually treat the smoke so what gets out isn’t too horrible). Sometimes people send trash to other countries because they don’t have room for it themselves. A barge called the Mobroo 4000 became famous in 1987 when it traveled from Islip, New York, all the way down the east coast of the US and on to Belize, trying to get rid of garbage. It ended up back in New York, and the garbage was incinerated in Brooklyn, the ashes buried in Islip. To their credit, the barge’s crew didn’t simply dump the 3,182 tons of trash in the ocean.
Growing up in the suburban US, I learned our society’s rituals for getting rid of trash, which were pretty effective. I also grew up in the 1970s, when public service campaigns against litter were thick on the ground (“Give a Hoot, don’t pollute!”). One of my earliest TV memories is of Iron Eyes Cody playing a Native American who sheds a single tear after some thoughtless people throw a bag of trash out their car window. This 1971 Keep America Beautiful ad had a huge impact on my generation; we started to get our littering habit under control, at least. At the time, my young self didn’t realize that Keep America Beautiful was a front for the can and bottle companies that were trying to shift responsibility for America’s waste problem onto individual consumers like me so that they could keep producing future trash unchecked. I bought the Italian-American Iron Eyes’ tragic performance hook, line, and sinker. To this day, I am deeply horrified when I see someone else litter.
And I see a fair amount of that here in Ulaanbaatar. As people drive past me, they casually throw empty soda bottles, candy wrappers, or even bags of trash out into the street. Better to keep the car clean, after all. If you are a pedestrian in the city center, there are waste receptacles here and there, and you start to learn where they are if you walk around enough. At bus stops. In front of supermarkets. Scattered along Peace Avenue. But if you walk off the major streets, there aren’t any waste bins, unless you count the drainage ditch or the side of the road. You have to just carry it with you until you get to where you are going, or you can just drop it where you stand.
But I think it’s important not to blame too much of the trash we see on careless individuals. It would really help if people would stop littering, but littering isn’t the worst waste disposal problem Ulaanbaatar faces. The biggest problem is that the city lacks the capacity for dealing with all the garbage produced by its residents, businesses, and industries. The huge amounts of construction going on also generate a lot of waste. The limited landfills are not well contained, so garbage leaks back out into our environment. There are not enough garbage trucks, either, and the ones they have are quite old. All of this poses a problem for a city that has nearly doubled in size over the last 20 years.
One of the challenges of solid waste disposal is the “ger districts,” the informal settlements that have spread out around the city as people have moved here from the countryside and been unable to find affordable homes in the city proper. These parts of the city often do not have adequate (or any) city services extended to them, like sewage, sanitation, heat, and power. At this point, the ger districts house nearly half the residents of the city—nearly a quarter of the country’s population of three million. And they are growing. A number of organizations have been working on improving life and services in the ger districts, recognizing that for a variety of reasons, it is better to make these areas more livable than to assume people will abandon them for high density housing in the city center. The Asia Foundation, for example, has been trying to improve waste disposal in the ger districts through more reliable, better publicized waste pick-up schedules, as well as community clean-up groups to get garbage from less accessible areas. This has been underway since 2012.
More recently, the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD) has joined the solid waste management fray with a US$9.7 million loan and EU funding of an additional US$6 million to improve the city’s landfills and waste management equipment. Hopefully, we will see some improvement on the ground. But one other problem that any city-wide program faces is the frequent changes in the city’s administration. The mayor has just changed; the old one was ousted before his two-year term was up when he was accused of not doing his job. The city clearly needs sustained, consistent leadership, but the politics mitigate against that, it seems.
What I have been thinking a lot about in relation to this and other environmental problems here, is something I have heard consistently from my students and other Mongolians I’ve been talking to since I’ve been here. People frequently talk about their nomadic heritage, and how Mongolians have reverence for nature and feel the need to live in harmony with their environment. The Mongolian landscape is living; people can point to this hill or that valley and talk about the spirits that reside there. The city itself contains many ovoo, sacred places marked by piles of rock and multicolored strips of cloth. The Mongols once even designed boots with upturned toes to have minimal impact on the grass as they walked across it. (Now, the upturned toes seem hopelessly optimistic in the face of the many tire tracks that crisscross the grasslands outside of Ulaanbaatar; four-wheel-drive vehicles surely shred the ground more severely than boots do.)
The capitalist development that is happening now in Ulaanbaatar overwhelms any historical reverence for nature. As much as the city-dwellers return to their roots in the countryside during holiday seasons, and to rejuvenate during the summer, they fall prey to a similar notion that plagues western society as well: The city is not part of their natural environment and thus doesn’t require the same respect. In the US, landscape architects like Anne Whiston Spirn, as well as the entire environmental justice movement, have been working hard to help people see that cities are as much a part of nature as remote wilderness is. They are built in and of the natural world, are subject to its processes and patterns, and do not transcend it out of some act of sheer human will, much as we’d like to think they do. Our “built environment,” as it’s called, is not magically separated from our natural environment. What we do in one, we do in the other. Better to look at it as if it were all one.
It would take ethnographic research to determine why the city dwellers I observe seem to have such casual disregard for their surroundings, but it feels to me that Mongolians have a certain contempt for the city and for city life. Even the ones who were born here. When I tell people that Emma doesn’t like it here, they laugh and say, “Of course. It’s understandable.” There is a feeling of hopeless resignation in the way people talk about Ulaanbaatar, as if the problems are beyond human agency to solve. Of course, my observations are fairly superficial, based on a few months of interactions with a limited number of people. But there are clear signs everywhere that people don’t hold the city in the same esteem as they hold the countryside. Living in harmony with nature doesn’t apply here. This is certainly one of the roots of the problem.
Every day, I look out my windows upon the Bogd Khan Uul, the first officially protected national park in the world (since 1783). It’s a reminder that Mongolians have protected their environment and been aware of their impact on nature for a long time now, since well before there was a world-wide cultural trend to set aside areas of pristine nature to protect from human destruction. I don’t want to seem like I am down on Mongolians because of the trash problem; I’m not. I think it’s a matter of a rapid change in lifestyle that has overwhelmed people’s customs and habits. Urbanization and consumerism combine to produce a lot of garbage, and it’s hard to know what to do with it in the absence of well-developed disposal practices. The people in the city are not nomads, and they have forgotten many aspects of nomadic life. But the city hasn’t developed enough facilities for people to live well in their environment, either. The lessons of nomadic life are not irrelevant here. They just need to be adapted.