23 May 2015

Plastic Bottles at Midnight in Mongolia by Meredith Potts

Meredith Potts is the executive director of the non-profit NGO FIRE, the Flagstaff International Relief Effort, based in Flagstaff, Arizona and Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia. Since 1997, FIRE has been administering aid programs in Mongolia, with a current focus on viral hepatitis and liver cancer, which are epidemic in Mongolia. As of May of 2015, FIRE has also begun a relief project for the survivors of the village of Langtang in Nepal; the village was almost completely destroyed by a landslide triggered by the earthquake of April 25.

Learn more and help support FIRE at: fireprojects.org. FIRE is a non-profit organization; all contributions are tax-deductible.

Plastic Bottles at Midnight in Mongolia

Meredith Potts

Dusk did not even begin until 9:45 PM on this May night in Mongolia’s capital city. Still feeling energized, I took the long way home from a friend’s house at 12 midnight through Chinggis Square. It has been more than four years since I was last in Mongolia. As I casually strolled, absorbing the dramatic changes in Ulaanbaatar, from the skyline to the abundant and overly friendly taxi drivers concerned for my safety at that late hour in new cars (not 20-year-old junk-heaps) to the new planters and upgraded sidewalks and well-lit streets, I became a bit annoyed with the plastic bottles everywhere. My first inclination was to pick them up and put them in the recycle bin. Then I remembered that I was not in the United States and there are no recycle bins in Mongolia. As an avid recycler, the thought of putting a plastic bottle in a trash can made me feel a bit awkward. So I tried to ignore the bottles.

Across the square, I saw a husband and wife picking through the trash cans in search of bottles. Wearing everything they owned, including a winter coat in 60-degree weather, their stained skin and soiled clothes were the familiar dark-brown color created from years of layered dirt, telling a long, arduous, and painful tale. The rice bag he dragged behind him was almost full. I walked around the square collecting bottles until my arms were overflowing – something we volunteer to do at home. I walked over to the husband and unloaded my arms into the rice bag. One of the bottles still had some grape-flavored soda in it. I handed the bottle to him asking, “Is it okay?” (Zugeer uu?) to drink or “No?” (Ugui?) in my one-word, kindergarten Mongolian. I could see a tiny glint in his eyes, and the corners of his lips turned up ever so slightly. He gulped it down. We both thanked each other a few times over, as I was happy to know the bottles would be recycled. Though it is an activity of desperation for them, not choice, I was very glad someone was doing it.

I started to walk out of the square. Again, the bottles were everywhere. With another armload, I walked back to the man with the bag. This time he was with his wife. I had found a bottle with some water in it; I handed the bottle to her. Sometimes the trash pickers are aggressive. Often, they are drunk. Almost always, they are adults. In 2004, during my very first week in Mongolia, a man was found dead in the stairwell of my apartment building. He had been beaten to death in a drunken fight over the rights to dig through the building’s dumpster. This couple was not aggressive. They were not drunk. His face was deformed from what looked to be a terrible burn. He was humbled and appreciative – me, the foreigner helping them pick up trash in the middle of the night. She was grateful and ashamed. Both were bewildered, with the same look on their faces I saw so often during my years of delivering clothes ger-to-ger, hand-to-hand. “What? Why? You have come from where? To do this, for me?” I gave them 5,000 togrog. My heart strained as I looked into their eyes for the few seconds they let me hold contact. For her, it was barely a split second. 5,000 Mongolian togrog (about US$2.50) is more than twice what they will be paid for their night’s worth of scouring trash cans across the city filling a rice bag with 200+ bottles. 5,000 togrog will barely buy a 500-ml bottle of water in the Western restaurant a few hundred yards away.

Though a lifelong photographer with a camera in my pocket, I refrained from taking a photograph. I felt her shame so strongly that I did not want to add to it by making her feel like a show. Nor did I want any confusion about my motives. I just wanted to help fellow humans who were suffering and show them respect that I am sure they rarely, if ever, receive.

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