American musingsFor the US to tell the world what to do about plastic waste, the credibility gap has to be managed first.
The United States is just recovering from a much-touted "red wave" where it was envisaged that the Republican Party would take over the Senate and the House, paralysing the government till the next elections. The elections showed that people can still be sensible not to let right-wing activists take over the agenda and bring about more division in a country that has not seen such levels of polarisation in past decades. This also means focusing on economic recovery, job creation and battling inflation.
Post-pandemic, after a very interesting episode last year, it was great to be back in the US. The little chivalry in people—be it opening the door or just letting people move—perhaps keeps this country going, apart from their general positive attitude. Random conversations in the elevator or a smile from a fellow walker in the park or just that driver letting you take your turn or cross the street are a good reminder of the attitude of the people. Of course, Nepal has a great brand recall here with people sharing fond memories of their trips, the documentaries they have watched or the books they have read.
Of course, there are key challenges the US has to manage. One is in its contribution to climate change, and the second is towards recovering from the impact of Covid-19.
The discourse around climate change has not percolated to the daily life of people. Plastic forms the key part of any activity—eating, entertainment or packaging. There is a feel-good factor as long as there is a “recycled” logo on it. The discourse is yet to shift to how to eliminate the use of basic stuff like napkins or some packaging material. How consciously to use a cloth packing bag or even ensure one does not need a bag altogether. The shortage of staff at eateries has ensured more usage of disposable plates, glasses and lots of other stuff. The US produces 40 million tonnes of plastic waste per year, which works out at around 130 kg per person. That is around 40,000 times what is produced in Nepal while the US population is just 11 times that of Nepal. While there is a lot of feel-good factor about recycled plastic, only a fraction of the waste gets recycled. Therefore, to tell the world what to do in terms of managing plastic waste, be it US-based companies or institutions, the credibility gap has to be managed.
While there may be some commitments from this administration in contrast to its predecessor, it is unsure how there will be major policy implementation till basic citizen behaviour changes from consumption to waste reduction.
One impact of the pandemic is very visible. Many restaurants have closed and so have other establishments. Some of my favourites are gone. There are fewer people coming to work in-person, which means less space is rented and fewer people are turning up at eateries. Takeouts do well and inflation has also impacted spending. Establishments are also facing an acute shortage of staff and there is a tendency to work with fewer people. New models of cafes are asking cashiers to double up as servers, and online ordering is changing how orders are taken and delivered. There are more homeless visible in the streets, and Uber drivers tell you about the challenges they faced during the pandemic.
The bigger challenge is perhaps going to be managing the impact on mental health. People have switched jobs, they have done many things to cope with the pandemic, and there is a sense of fatigue. Educational institutions are figuring out how to design new sets of curriculum for students as the nature of the jobs are changing, and there is a need for more soft skills than technical training.
Younger people who have spent years online during the pandemic are finding it difficult to cope with the new in-person environment in many cases. The limitation on human interaction and reliance on the smartphone for communication, entertainment and content consumption has changed how one views basic human conversations or activities. Human behaviour is judged from the myopia of what content one is viewing. Cultural sensitivities are ignored, and a sense of divisiveness therefore prevails.
There has to be more self-reflection, and at one of the discussions at a college, we were ideating on a five-year undergraduate programme where there will be a gap year after two years for students to join a study abroad programme, engage in programmes that have more human interaction, and be able, as we say in coaching, to get into a learning mode instead of a judging mode. There is definitely more demand for learning programmes that help people reflect and engage in a sabbatical and plan years ahead. However, there is uncertainty what crisis will grip the world next. We have seen the impact of the war on Ukraine, and all eyes here are set on what China will do in the coming years as it removes travel and other restrictions.
The US and the world do not perhaps have the bandwidth to handle another crisis. So the key will be to see how countries can come together to manage the global economy and the lives of the people recovering from the pandemic in a better way.