Underground Recycling

Bangkok has been hit by a new trend: Greening. If you go around town you will see supermarkets advertising their new environmentally friendly canvas bags. Bangkokians seem to be catching on to the fad and buying the little bags. Ironically, in this same town, you can walk by the trash can labelled recycling and see that there is all kinds of trash in it without any kind of sorting at all.

While most Thais, aren’t as aware of recycling as most Westerners, it doesn’t mean that they don’t recycle. In fact, Thais have been recycling long before the slogans “Go Green!”  and “I’m Not a Plastic Bag” started being promoted. Most well-to-do Thais left it to their servants and workers to do their recycling for them. They did their part simply by buying the product in the first place and leaving if for the less fortunate to do all the dirty work.  Only lately has recycling become a middle class thing to be applauded.

Previously, only the poorer segment of the population cared about those plastic bottles and aluminum cans strewn along the street or left unsorted in trash cans. To them, these materials represented money once they had been collected and sold to recycling centers. It didn’t matter if you didn’t recycle personally because someone else would do the recycling for you. Realistically though, it just makes the job of recycling harder, dirtier and less effective for those that do.

The “saleng people” do this for a living and they ride around in their tricycle-wagon, or saleng, through the streets of Bangkok. They start out early in the morning to get the good finds, wear ragged and dirty clothes, and spend most of the day searching through Bangkok’s garbage. Every garbage bin or pile of trash becomes a place to find the goods that they sell to earn the money they need to live off of. They are sometimes called “the unsung heroes without whom Bangkok would drown in a sea of trash.” (Bangkok Post May 26, 1998)