Since the last few years every time I visited my parents on vacation, in Trivandrum, my mother would tell me that Abubacker was asking about me. He has been a regular visitor to their home since many years, and collects what we call ‘waste’ or what is called ‘discards’ in zero-waste lingo. Abubacker began enquiring about me since the vacation I cleaned up my parents’ old bookshelves clearing out magazines, school books and a large number of other sundry books which we inherited at different points. It resulted in a huge package for him and since then he came to the conclusion that it is my arrival that would result in discard bounty from our home!
During this vacation, Abubacker happened to come when I was at my parents place, and I finally met the distinguished looking man with his wide smile and engaging conversation style. He smiled espying the pile of old books and magazines I had waiting for him and we got talking. I began quizzing him on what he does, how he disposes the discards and what kinds of discards he deals with.
He told me that he collects almost everything except the thin plastic bags from households -clearly it is well past time we stopped using them- and in turn he sells these to a wholesaler in Trivandrum. He also helps his son, a scrap dealer who collects scrap and sells it to a wholesaler in Tamil Nadu. He said that he pays the households for collecting old newspapers but the rest he picks up but doesn’t pay (as it is not remunerative enough).
He narrated an incident that happened the week before he spoke with me. While he was going through a neighbourhood, a person beckoned him and took him to a huge dump piled with scrap, old vessels, plastic and all kinds of discards. Abubacker said, “I would have gladly collected all the items but the only problem was that the whole place was stinking with food waste and piled with rotting stuff. I had to politely refuse; I wish people would segregate their waste in a way that we can collect it”.
Men like Abubacker were a regular fixture during our early years when every scrap of newspaper and all old books were carefully stored and sold to these waste collectors. They also collected and paid us for various other sundry discards- bottles, cartons, and old bags. Middle class families haggled over the amounts these men paid and fathers watched their weighing machines carefully to check if we were being short changed.
When consumption and affluence increased, the culture of reuse and recycling took a back seat resulting in tremendous amounts of waste. Our diligence in sorting non-biodegradable discards (other than newspapers, which continues to be diligently sold by most households) has come down and we mindlessly throw them into the garbage. This unthinking attitude worked as long as some village could host a dump and we could continue to throw it and forget it! However that is history now, with every village or town hosting a waste dump has woken up to the reality of its health hazards and is refusing to host dumps anymore. Therefore we are all forced to become more responsible for our own discards-something we should always have been!
We need to re-learn our old habits of thrift and reuse. It has to begin with a change in our shopping behaviour; we have to stop buying things that are non-recyclable or not accepted by people like Abubacker. As Shibu who works on Zero Waste at Thanal, Trivandrum, put it, “It is time for us to recognise and respect the service provided by Abubackers of the world. They are conserving nature – by taking up society’s task of recycling.” Maybe it is also time for each one of us to seek out our own Abubackers, who will help us, recycle responsibly, and pay them to collect our discards rather than expect them to compensate us.
It is time for us to reduce, reuse and recycle!