Reducing Garbage by Re-establishing Bowl Use

By Julian Dierkes

In recent workshops we asked participants to list the most pressing policy challenges that Mongolia faced. A relatively small number of problems were listed repeatedly, by participants based in Ulaanbaatar as well as those from other aimags. Among those, unemployment was prominent. But, another topic that was mentioned everywhere was garbage.

Sadly, garbage is everywhere in Mongolia. Outside of the city, this is in part because of the wide-open landscape, meaning that once garbage “gets loose” it is distributed across the landscape.

There have been some successes, for example the availability of garbage cans in towns and cities, a price on plastic shopping bags (or their outright ban, coming to Ulaanbaatar), and legislation restricting smoking with has had the side effect of reducing the number of cigarette butts.

But Mongolians still perceive garbage to be a blight on their country, whether it is litter, that is carelessly thrown away items of garbage, or landfills that contain garbage inadequately.

There are some policy options that present themselves. Most of these might focus on some kind of deposit system for glass and plastic containers at least.

But, recycling facilities are missing and the recycling business has proven challenging in many countries. In the long-term, the aim thus would have to be to reduce garbage in the first place.

For Mongolia, one might hope that traditional nomadic life might offer some inspiration and some culturally appropriate solutions here.

At certain times of the year, it is common to see nomads on the move in the countryside.

It doesn’t have to be a yak cart or Porta on moving day in #Mongolia.

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The entirety of a household fits onto a vehicle here. The sparsity of possessions is caused to some extent by “poverty” of herders moving from a subsistence livelihood to a cash economy, but it is also dictated by the requirements of periodic moves.

The sparsity of possessions means that there are many multipurpose items, and that household items have been reduced to their greatest need.

The Milk Bowl as an Example of a Reusable Tool

I would not be surprised at all if some campaign has already focused on the milk bowl. After all, it seems an obvious symbol of a focus on reusing tools.

Wonderful August trip to #Mongolia lingering in bowl of #aruul.

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The milk bowl has significant cultural meaning. It plays a role in welcoming visitors, but also in gift-giving, typically offered along with a khadak (blue silk scarf).

The milk bowl also emphasizes one of the useful aspects of the deel, Mongolia’s traditional outfit, where the chest area is used as a storage pouch for essential items like a snuff bottle, but also a milk bowl.

Today, it seems to have become a rare sight for a herder to arrive somewhere only to pull out his or her bowl to participate in a meal.

But with chain coffee having arrived in Ulaanbaatar at least, disposable cups have become more common. In development workshops and other professional settings, cases of 0.5l bottles of drinking water are typically offered to participants.

This strikes me as an opportunity for a campaign that reminds Mongolians of their previous habit of brining a vessel along with them. Perhaps a bowl is less practical in purses, but it could certainly fit in some backpacks. Or, it could be replaced by the various water and coffee bottles that are so common on North American university campuses.

While a campaign for reusable vessels will not solve Mongolia’s garbage problem, if it met with any success, it would contribute to reducing garbage.

About Julian Dierkes

Julian Dierkes is a sociologist by training (PhD Princeton Univ) and a Mongolist by choice and passion since around 2005. He teaches in the Master of Public Policy and Global Affairs at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada. He toots
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