My spoiled life or The United States vs. the rest of the world
During Spring Break, I had an opportunity to visit the Dominican Republic because my friend from Wesleyan and her family had been kind enough to invite me. This trip made me realize how spoiled I have been after living in the United States for almost seven years (I was born in Thailand and came to the U.S. in May 2001). I stayed with her family in “el campo,” the countryside—“the real Dominican Republic.” Her grandmother cooked us our first meal. On the table, there were “habichuelas” (Dominican stewed beans), white rice, a salad, lamb stew and steamed plantains. The meal was simple, healthy and wonderful. Besides the food, I also noticed the utensils I was using.
The silverware was typical aluminum forks and knives, along with ceramic and plastic plates. These plastic plates were the kind that are imported from China that we find in dollar stores, which do not seem to meet the standard for a dinner table set for many families in the U.S. Later, I asked for some water; the water was contained in a “Ruby Kist” cranberry juice plastic bottle. It looked beat-up and had some brown stains on its interior and exterior because it has been used for a while. Its condition was such that it should have been switched for a new one. Many families in the U.S. would not have reused this bottle. It would have been discarded immediately and would probably be replaced by a 10-dollar Nalgene water bottle, or no need for bottles at all because we can also afford water filters! We have the luxury of going beyond essentials, while some Dominicans use their containers fully before discarding them.
I witnessed many other problematic uses of plastic. The Dominican Republic's poor cannot often afford to replace their old worn-out cooking utensils, whereas in the U.S. we often do not give much thought to our wastefulness as we throw out our leftovers from lunch. Most of us have the privilege to discard the containers we no longer have a use for into recycling bins, yet in the Dominican Republic they carry out the “recycling process.” When I asked my friend's grandmother for more “habichuela con dulce,” a sweet creamed bean, because I couldn't get enough of it, she poured the dessert from an old paint container. I freaked out for a moment but soon realized that the container was clean because it has been used for so long. Shortly after, I visited a cafeteria behind a police station in Sosua, and saw a plastic bag melting into a warm rice pot. It was being used to cover the pot and keep out dust. Alarmed, I tried to pull the melting plastic bag off of the rice, but there was no point. As soon as the cook returned, he put the plastic bag back in its place.
Even though my observations were limited, I am confident that these practices are common in the Dominican Republic and many parts of the world. In the U.S., many of us are aware of the hazardous effects of plastic if it is used incorrectly, thanks to health-conscious publications and researchers. I wish I had said something to the cook and my friend's grandmother, but the Spanish I had learned for the past six years failed me. I slept with those thoughts. If I had actually said something and tried to explain what I know, would they understand me? Would they change the way they live? I know for a fact that my 70-year-old grandmother in Thailand would not.
I am not writing this to convince people to reuse paint containers or plastic bottles like most families in the Dominican Republic and other developing countries would, or to discredit scientific research on plastic poisoning or hygiene. Nor am I asking economists or educators to go out and help the rest of the world (well, it would be great if you did). You may say that the Dominicans I met and much of the rest of the world are poor and lack education. Although this is a truth, another truth is that they do not take their resources for granted. The Dominican Republic's poor have demonstrated the practice of effective recycling. They make the most out of the limited supplies they have. Let's just admit that we are all somewhat spoiled. Much of the environmental exploitation and waste production that takes place today could be eliminated if we were as resourceful as our neighbors.