Monday, June 15, 2009

When the Beajours try to keep up with the Joneses

...they use plastic. Plastic bags, plastic packaging, plastic soda bottles, plastic silverware, plastic cups (and styrofoam takeout containers, too).

When we're in the countryside, it's easy to take my own bag or bottle to the market and get it filled with sugar, cooking oil, laundry detergent, flour, rice, beans, cracked wheat or cornmeal. In Port-Au-Prince, where everyone that can afford to be is image-conscious and prefers the grocery store to the street market, all of these items come in plastic. In this age of global food crisis, 75% of Haiti's food is imported. Wholesale companies import bulk rice, beans, wheat, oats, corn and more and nicely repackage it into plastic to stock the shelves at Public's, Eagle, Caribbean, Big Star, Twins, Express, Royal and Olympic Markets.

But not just imported foods come in plastic. In the stores frequented by wealthier Haitians, produce and eggs are wrapped in plastic to give the illusion of cleanliness (as if they didn't come out of the ground, much less out of a chicken's rear-end). Here is a list of purchases that I passed up today in the grocery store, ALL locally produced and ALL wrapped, packaged or bottled in plastic (I'm sure looking forward to the end of June when we can eat again):

Bread (pita bread, gingerbread, sliced bread and unsliced bread)
Dish soap
Peanut butter

Why so much plastic in Haiti?

Worldwide, choosing the environmentally friendly (or "good stewardship") option is usually a function of privilege. How many struggling single parents can afford to choose Whole Foods or the local farmer's market over McDonald's and the paper, styrofoam and plastic waste that comes with it? Excess waste and environmental degradation are the results of a far more systematic problem than we like to admit.

In Haiti, though, plastic use often seems more a function of image than privilege. For one thing, eco-consciousness is not trendy among wealthy Haitians yet. It's not gauche to litter. It IS gauche to use a djakout (traditional handmade basket) instead of a plastic bag or a kwi (traditional calabash bowl) instead of a styrofoam plate. City-dwellers don't use kwi, lest they be labeled a peasant, backwards and uneducated. Similarly, most prefer imported rice to locally grown, more nutritious and less expensive sorghum. It's all about the image.

Being able to afford plastic is, in it's own way, a status symbol. And so ironically, the poorer you are in Haiti, the less plastic waste you generate. Produce, eggs and meat in the street market are far cheaper than their styrofoam and plastic-wrapped cousins in the supermarket. It's cheaper to buy soda in glass bottles, which are eventually returned to the brewery and reused. It's more expensive and convenient to buy soda in a plastic bottle, which doesn't have to be returned to the vendor and can instead be chucked out the car window with no thought as where it will still be in 1,000 years.

Do we, as excessively-trash producing Americans (in case you were wondering, google analytics has informed me that 70% of our readers live in the USA, which produces the highly quoted statistic of 50% of the world's trash), play a role in the waste production of the rest of the world? As a country that is quote unquote developed, we have a disproportionate amount of power and influence when it comes to our global brothers and sisters. What message are we sending that encourages Haitians, who are currently more connected to the food that they eat than we Americans are (whether by growing it themselves, purchasing it in a basket that was made their neighbor from straw grown by their cousin, or eating it out of a kwi that grew on a tree in their backyard) to aspire to shrink wrapped veggies bought in a supermarket?

Check in on other Plastic Challenge takers:

Sharon's thoughts at Confessions of a Hitherto Unknown Plasti-holic

Karen discusses plastic use and alternatives in North Carolina

-posted by Lexi on Ben's account

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

They just approved a measure here in D.C. to add an extra 5 cent charge per plastic bag at all stores. The apparent goal is to use the money this fee generates to clean up the Anacostia River (which is constantly full of trash). Both sides put up good arguments for/against the fee; I'm skeptical whether or not this will have any major effect (at least, in the efforts towards cleaning up the river).


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