THE BLOG
05/27/2010 12:10 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

My Footprint, Seen From India

During the first half of 2010, Valerie Tarico is traveling with her husband and two teenage daughters. Missives from the Southern Cross are her occasional dispatches from the road.

In India, I am a large person -- tall at 5'4", and with a body inherited from my Italian grandmother, stout. Tiny brown women, with gray hair tied back, walk past me, their lean arms balancing bundles on their heads and their smooth abs showing at the gap between blouse and sari. Bulky me, by contrast, struggles with my bulky suitcase, grateful for its wheels. My long, wide feet, which were a source of tremendous pride to me in the first grade (biggest in the class), wouldn't fit a single pair of women's shoes for sale in the southern half of the country.

But what made me feel enormous during five weeks in India this spring wasn't my body. It was my ecological footprint. On your average day in South India, your average person creates no durable trash. That's none: Nothing that won't decompose in the coming months. People snack primarily on fruit sold from baskets and bins or mounded on tables or, if we're talking about bananas, hanging on hooks in bunches like they hung from the banana tree. South Indians live on curried lentils and beans and rice sold from reusable bags sold in locally owned shops and farmer's markets. The beautiful saris worn by women are sold by the meter. So are many other clothes, which are stitched to order by tailors. Most people don't go anywhere in a typical day that they can't get to on their own two feet, and when they do, they go by mass transit.

I don't mean to sound naïve. Few people, including Indians, live such eco-friendly lives by preference. I once remarked to my friend Linde about the beauty of Hanoi streets flowing with bicycles at rush hour. Linde had lived there for years, and she responded dryly: "No Vietnamese rides a bicycle by choice." Sure enough, over the last ten years those bicycles have been replaced by motorbikes and, for those who can afford them, cars -- even though the change makes rush hour traffic move slower than the rivers of bicycles did. I have been told that it would take six Planet Earths for the current human population to live like Americans do. If so, I have no doubt that we currently have six planets worth of pent up demand.

As if to underscore the contrast between their traditional way of life and impending consumer culture, (which is coming to India just like everywhere else), the city streets and roadsides of South India are filthy with snack bags, plastic wrap, grocery bags, drink bottles, and all manner of cheap, broken semi-disposable consumer goods ranging from flip-flops to whirligigs to suitcases.

People who have no habit of creating durable garbage also have no habit of disposing of it well. I remember, several years back, looking out of a train window in Myanmar at miles of track-side that were literally covered with plastic bags. The bags had recently been introduced and were the only durable trash that local people generated. They treated them the same way that they would treat banana peels or orange seeds. In much of Asia and Latin America, some of the most common litter is bottles from "mineral water." I've thought sometimes that, based on results, the corporate mission of PepsiCo must be to re-beach Asia with PET cylinders bearing the Aquafina mark or some local equivalent.

Back in Seattle, our downstairs neighbor and friend, Darcy, wrote a Wikipedia article on the evils of bottled water (they are legion), and from the beginning of our travels this spring, my family determined to use as little as possible. Unfortunately, we had left our camping filter at home and none of the seven pharmacies I asked in four countries sold iodine in a form fit for internal consumption. So, we got resourceful. Whenever we landed in a city, we asked at the hotel, "Do you drink the tap water here?" If they said yes, we did too. In restaurants we asked for "regular water" or "drinking water" and pointed at whatever the locals were being served. Where the tap water wasn't drinkable we got guest houses to fill our bottles from their supplies of filtered or boiled water in the kitchen. On the road we ordered juices and soda water. We drank lots of tea. All four of us made it through five weeks in India without a single incident of Montezuma's Revenge.

The attitude of local people toward tourists and their "mineral water" varies. Most are all too happy to sell the stuff for a profit. A few hate the trash and its impact on the local environment. In Thailand, one small island, Koh Nang Yuan, bans all plastic drink bottles and sells water bottled in glass. A hill station in Tamil Nadu, Kodaikanal, has declared itself a "plastics-free zone," and snacks are sold in bags made out of repurposed newspapers or magazines. A juice vendor in Kerala offers to "refill your water bottle for ten rupees" from his water dispenser. He says that he'd have to bump the price by 50% to make the profit he would in selling bottled water but he figures this planet has done well by him and he should return the favor.

On the rare times that we did buy bottled water -- scorching days when our supplies ran out or times when our requests for regular water fell on deaf ears, I found the words "500 years" echoing in my mind. I drink it in an hour; the bottle can last 500 years.

We left India for Mauritius, where we bought our groceries in a SPAR market, a European grocery chain laid out much like our store at home. I carted home cereal in boxes, juice in tetrabrix, milk in plastic bottles, soda in aluminum cans, and four kiwis on a styrofoam tray wrapped in saran. In three days, we filled our garbage bin twice. Five hundred years, I thought, as Brian emptied it into the hotel dumpster. In the Pacific Ocean an area the size of Texas is now covered by a circling current of swirling plastics. Are we crazy??

Mauritius, by contrast with India, is lush and green. Environmentalists talk often of per capita consumption, or per capita carbon footprint, but we forget sometimes how much the capita matters. Mauritians may make more trash and pump out more C02 per capita than Indians, but there are only 1.2 million of them. That's approximately the same number of people living in Mumbai's Dharavi Slum, an area of 1.7 square kilometers bounded by the city's two railway lines. A couple of days before leaving India, we visited the slum on a Reality Tour headed by a slum resident and aimed at showing the resourcefulness of the local people. Resourceful is an understatement. Many families in Dharavi, almost half, have only ten square meters of living space, within which they somehow manage to cook and sleep and send clean scrubbed kids in clean scrubbed clothes to school.

The people of Dharavi have a negative ecological footprint if anyone does. They take the waste generated by middle class Indians, consumers like me, and somehow transform it into hundreds of millions of dollars worth of products that would otherwise be made out of virgin resources. Plastics, gathered by trash pickers, are sorted shredded, washed, and turned into colored pellets that leave the slum for factories. Aluminum cans become bricks of aluminum. Scrap plywood and Masonite become shrines for Hindu homes. Industrial paint cans are burned and scraped clean and pounded into shape and then returned to paint suppliers for refilling. Cans from commercial cooking oil go through a similar process--and the residual oil cleaned out of them is turned into soap. The workers do all of this with dignity and pride -- women wash shredded plastic in colorful saris -- but the price is high. Much of the recycling work is toxic; all of it is arduous. I don't want their quality of life to be the price of mine.

They deserve to have a big footprint as much as I do. But what will be left for them when they or their children or their grandchildren finally cross the railroad tracks? We have one planet, not six, and there are more of us every day wanting mineral water and cars and cereal in boxes.

On the other hand, how would I live if no-one were -- literally or figuratively -- in Dharavi cleaning up after me? I like to think I am living well: avoiding mineral water, declining shopping bags, bicycling to the grocery store, eating mostly vegetarian. But India politely suggests otherwise. When I stayed in a rural community, an ashram, outside of Trivandrum, I realized that they had no way to deal with any garbage I had brought in -- wrappers, a juice bottle, a torn bag -- because no one carted their garbage away. I shoved the plastic into my already tight suitcase. What if all my trash had to stay in my suitcase, or house and yard? What if I had to breathe the air I pollute (or that is polluted on my behalf)? What if, instead of looking out on a garden, my living room looked out on the stumps of any trees I consume as paper and the pits that are dug to provide me with metal? I wonder how big my footprint would be then.