Styrofoam containers, stained red with spaghetti sauce. Each had left-over noodles, fried chicken bones and crumbs from its crispy breading. Used and oily spoon and fork, red-stained too. Small containers with left-over gravy. Plastic cups with left-over Coke, from a few drops to half-full. Each had a red straw made from a sturdy kind of plastic, attached to the cup’s plastic lid. All left behind after a quick Christmas party lunch, after exchanging gifts, after playing parlor games. We were almost 40 in the classroom. The event ended that year, 1996.
I collected them all, with a few school friends around to help. All heaped up outside the classroom. We threw left-overs. We stacked all Styrofoam containers and cups. We collected all the spoons, forks, lids and straws and gravy containers. I did not want them to end up into waste. So we washed them all with water and soap. Stacked them back in a huge clear plastic bag, smelly but all clean. It took us almost 2 hours.
I was hoping we could sell them. I was excited. Maybe 25 centavos each. Not bad for an income, something to bring home before Christmas. All containers and plastics were clean and ready. The junk shop within the town might find some use for them. At least they can be recycled and not end up as garbage.
“Basura lang yan,” the junk shop owner said. I had no choice but to throw the “recyclables” away. I left them on a mound of wet ash, on the sidewalk right outside the junk shop.
My heart broke. It broke the way a teenager’s heart breaks when someone busts him. I couldn’t remember if I cried, but I remember it felt like some heavy rock weighed down on my chest. I was 12.
And I was naïve. I thought someone might find some use for a garbage like those. But yes, I did not see it coming. Basura lang ‘yan. They are all waste. All garbage. All meant to be left behind with no use. All worthless.
But I never stopped. A few years after college, I once sold piles of newspapers, used white paper and assorted cardboards. Those are the times of purging. When Typhoon Milenyo came in 2006, all of my old notes were drenched. Old scratch papers, some notebooks, lesson hand-outs photocopied in thin letter-size sheets, course manuals and test papers in newsprint. Only a few notebooks and notes were spared. I salvaged some by drying them out, then sold the rest for recycling.
I had to let go. All the waste. All the garbage.
But sometimes I stop – to contemplate on the nature of garbage. Why do we throw so much? Why do we have so much waste? I used to think I can make a business out of selling junk. But I don’t have enough space to store them. I don’t even have the strength of will. What I had then was a relentless riddle: In what way we can recycle all garbage and end up the limitless waste around us?
We pile them up. We accumulate them. They share our space. They waste our time.
I think of Japan. I heard people say you can’t find any sidewalk with stinking garbage. I haven’t been there, but I have wished something like that in our country. But sidewalk garbage is almost always a common thing, whether in Manila or outside of it. We see these everyday: the sight and stench of rotten salad of vegetable peels, spoiled fruits, detached fish gills, plastic bags, used diaper and napkins, opened tin and aluminum cans, pet or glass bottles and boxes, often with no recycling value.
And I look at home. We also keep things. I myself did and perhaps still do. Reluctant of throwing away the things with no use, with a value that has fully disappeared as time passes. We still cling to an outdated sentiment, to a fear of losing things, thinking its future use.
I was in first year high school. A speaker gave a talk about nature and environment. She said something about the laws of nature. I still vividly remember the first law:
“There is no such thing as waste.”
The word “basura” is Spanish in origin. I’m still unsure, but I can safely assume that there is no equivalent of that word in any of our local languages. Because even Tagalog dumi is different. It is not a waste. It returns to the Earth. It decays and becomes a new energy to sustain life.
A waste is a waste because it cannot be recycled. It is man-made. Or rather, it is made out of the ignorance of natural wisdom. The laws of nature cannot embrace any waste we produce out of greed and avarice. So we suffer the consequence. We pile them up. We accumulate them. They share our space. They waste our time.
Things we throw everyday are mass-produced, processed, packaged. We have lost – and still struggling to revive – the values of home-made, ingenious, handcrafted, long-lasting labor of Love. And we have lost the sensibility of change, the beautiful essence of decay, the universal, ubiquitous and often profound wisdom of impermanence. That things always change and transform. We value more the idea of making things fast and instant, many and massive, easily profitable and obsolete. We have been blinded in a society that manufactures things only to throw them away.
Now, the way we see things seeps right through the way we see each other. Basura lang ‘yan. Our ignorance is a fate of our humanity and the tortured Earth we call home.