Saturday, May 21, 2011

Burnt: Trash Disposal in Africa

Once upon a time, not so long ago, a visitor to Moshaweng asked me where he could find a trash can. He had a scrap of paper in need of disposal. I looked about. We normally keep a cardboard book in the corner of every room. However, at this point in time, I could find no box. "Just throw it outside," I said. He was horrified by my suggestion and refused. I have no idea what he did with his garbage. Maybe he carted it all the way back to town with him. The point is, while I'm normally more environmentally conscious, things are very different here.

I suggested that he just toss the paper outside because that's what everyone does. Everyone. And not just paper. Cans. Styrofoam. Wrappers. Chicken bones. The box they came in. Everything. This is especially noticeable aboard taxis. Whenever someone finishes a snack, they open the nearest window, reach over and toss out their trash. In the city. In the country. Wherever, whenever. This frustrates me on taxis from one urban area to another. There are usually trash cans at either end of the route, would it kill anyone to hang onto their garbage until they could dispose of it properly? However, I have much more sympathy when traveling between villages.

In the average South African village there are no trash cans, no garbage trucks, no municipal dumping ground. One's trash is one's own responsibility and "properly" getting rid of it is a time-consuming and imperfect process. Garbage is collected, sometimes in a small container but frequently in a large pit in the yard and then burned. Paper, plastic and everything else you can imagine. Just tossing trash out the window is probably more environmentally sound than burning it. In my opinion, what rural South Africa needs most in terms of infrastructure improvement is a a garbage collection system. It would clean the place up and provide the kind of low-skill employment that is so desperately needed. Are you listening, ANC?

As it is, I do burn my own trash. I absolutely hate doing it, mostly because I'm terrible at it. I just spent half hour trying to get a cardboard box to burn. Darn you, cornflakes! I can build recreational fires, but a fire that will turn an empty bag of dog food and other grocery remnants into ash is still far beyond my skill level. Sometimes I get it right, other days I run out of matches trying. On those days I often suffer the humiliation of dragging my trash home. My family doesn't burn their trash in the yard, we burn it by the side of the *very* public road. It's quite a show. My old host family had a pit. It was quite nice. I threw my trash in, and a few weeks later someone else would burn it for me. I can't believe I just called that "nice". In just a few months, I'll never burn trash again. That will be truly "nice".

By the way, had the visitor found a box to dispose of his paper it would have eventually been burned by the general worker. At school last week, I glanced out a window to see a massive bonfire in the field beyond the garden. It is a testament to how long I've lived here that I thought absolutely nothing of it and went back to work.

Ahh, burning plastic... It will always remind me of Africa.


  1. When I was a child, we burned all our garbage, too. And I have fond memories of standing by the fire pit with my dad, watching things burn. Plastic was my favorite then, because it did such intereting things before burning. But burning plastic DOES stink! In 25 years, it will all be different in Moshaweng...

  2. I read this to my 6 yr old son and he was fascinated! He was curious about where trash goes in Africa. Not sure why but now he knows.