Editor’s Note — Of Thailand And Toilet Paper

Hearing the news about the partial West Coast shipping shutdown recently, I couldn’t help but think of Thailand.

According to local economics writer Howard Dicus, the West Coast strike specifically exempts shipping from there to Hawaii. But that apparently hasn’t stopped the hallowed Hawaii tradition of the toilet paper stampede. Every time there’s any sort of perceived threat of interrupted maritime commerce—a hurricane, a strike, a terrorist attack on a Charmin factory—local stores experience a run on toilet paper.

Unlike my fellow island residents, I don’t experience TP Panic. That’s because, in the late 80s and early 90s, I did a stint with Peace Corps in Thailand. For two years and three months, I pretty much did without posterior tissue, and it was no particular hardship. Thais have this really simple substitute for the TP roll.  It’s an aluminum bowl and a tank of water. When you go to the loo to do number two, you throw water on your butt afterwards. It really gets you cleaner than TP does, and it doesn’t require cutting down trees and burning lots of energy and using lots of nasty chemicals to turn wood into soft white stuff. Back in the states again, I’m afraid I’ve reverted back to my nasty American TP habit. But I know I can do without if I need to, and I’d probably be better off.

Thailand’s been on my mind a lot recently, because of the stories I’ve been covering. I keep thinking, “If I was in Thailand in 1989, this wouldn’t even be a story.” That’s because using H20 instead of TP was only one of many advantages the Thais, at least back then, had over Americans.

Here on the Big Island, we’ve been on a decades-long crisis because the Hilo landfill is over-filled with garbage, much of which started as packaging or goods somewhere overseas. Thais generated trash, too, but not nearly so much. Yes, they recycled: the bags in stores were made from glued-together magazine pages, and the paper at school was grayish recycled stuff that was actually easier on the eyes than our blinding white sheets of bleached tree pulp. But mostly, they just didn’t use as much, because they had another huge cultural advantage over Americans: they knew how to share.

My favorite example of that is the bicycle pump. Thai teachers usually live in housing supplied by the school, but at the first school where I was assigned, the school’s housing was full, so a local factory owner gave me a house that he usually reserved for his workers. While I was staying there, I owned a bicycle pump. I left it on my front porch. Whenever anyone in the twelve families who lived at the factory needed a bicycle pump, they came over and used it. Sometimes I had to go looking for it, but it was no major inconvenience; how often do you actually need bicycle pump?

In America, with our strong traditions of independence and self-reliance, every family has to have their own bicycle pump. Multiply that times the hundreds of items in the average American household. Do you begin to see why Asian countries are winning the trade war, and our landfill is overflowing with stuff made over there?

There’s more. ‘Worried that there’s going to be a tongue of lava between the only house you could afford on the island and your job on the other side of the island? The housing at the school and the factory weren’t isolated instances. Nearly everyone I knew lived within walking or bicycling distance of their jobs. Shopkeepers lived over their shops.  Farmers lived next to their fields. And because they lived there, they had an incentive to make the workplace more clean and civil: no commuting between suburban heaven and assembly line or cubicle hell. And the villages were clustered so that nearly every shop you needed to go to was within bicycling distance—and if it wasn’t, the buses went EVERYWHERE, FREQUENTLY, so most people didn’t even need cars.

In Thailand, I never heard an employer complain about supplying his workers with housing; it was just the logical thing to do. In Hawaii, we can still see the vestiges of a similar system that once existed here: the old plantation camps, the often-vacant upstairs rooms over the downtown stores. But somewhere along the way, the old American Dream of owning your own farm or business has gotten replaced by owning a house in gated golf course community, and the government has been run for the benefit of the large landowners and the real estate/construction industry for so long that zoning ordinances often actually make it illegal to live near your work.

A couple of proposed new laws would start to take some baby steps toward changing that. On the county level, the administration has proposed Bill 4, which would allow for duplexes and apartments in some mixed use commercial/industrial areas—the ones known as “MCX” zones. The bill has made some strange bedfellows: at its only hearing as of this paper’s deadline, Hilo’s Dennis Onishi and Hamakua’s Valerie Poindexter favored it as a way to create more affordable housing, for instance, while Kona’s Dru Kanuha and Karen Eoff and Hilos’s Aaron Chung expressed some reservations, mostly based on possible noise and safety problems. But such districts already allow uses such as theaters and restaurants. And as Onishi pointed out, walking to work could mitigate some problems, such as the noise and pollution of traffic.

On the state level, Senate Bill 916 takes an even stronger approach; it would require the Hawaii Community Development Authority to “establish rules to require reserved and workforce housing in developments.”

Whether either bill stands a realistic chance of passing remains to be seen. Bill 4 was sent back for more work. SB916 faces a gauntlet of powerful committee chairs who could kill it simply by not scheduling hearings; as of our deadline, it had already been deferred three times by the Senate Human Services and Housing Committee. But we do need to start moving toward some sort of model that’s more sustainable, especially on this little island in the middle of the Pacific. Shipping in thousands of tons of packaging that goes straight into the trash when it gets home is just silly. And sticking most of our affordable housing in lava risk zones and making people drive from there to work is an absurd notion for everybody but real estate agents and developers.

And pulping forests and shipping them to Hawaii to wipe our butts makes no sense at all.

— Alan McNarie


1 reply
  1. joy cash
    joy cash says:

    Please encourage our mayor & County council to create ZeroWaste program on our island.
    Anyone know recycled small plastics products manufacturer we could
    entice to our island?

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