I never gave a lot of thought to waste collection in the UK. OK, maybe my close friends will tell you that I give a little more thought than some – I have occasionally been labelled as the ‘bin police’ when I’ve fished through somebody else’s rubbish and asked why something isn’t being recycled or composted. Once or twice I’ve been laughed out of the shop as I’m trying to carry all my items instead of take a plastic bag… but that’s as far as it goes.
I separate my plastic from my cardboard. I try to not use or reuse my plastic bags. I put my compost out. I wheel my bins out on a Tuesday evening and it’s gone by the time I’m leaving for work the next morning. But things are a little different here in Malawi. It requires a little more thought. There’s no waste collection service here in Mulanje. There are no recycling facilities. The waste from the house gets put in my back yard. Actually, it’s almost but not quite buried in the garden. Plastic is usually collected in a pile and then burnt. There are similar issues at the markets that we have visited (see picture below). A collection of animals appear at our garden ‘pit’ scavenging for food. Last week one of the baboons that frequents our garden came even closer and was found in the kitchen with a handful of maize flour.
I would consider myself to be environmentally minded, but being here in Mulanje is making me rethink how honestly I can make this claim. It is difficult to care about reducing, reusing, recycling when I can put my waste in a bin and it is wheeled away to become somebody else’s problem. I don’t even know where the collective waste gets taken. I don’t know whose back yard it’s in – I just know it’s not mine.
Although the lack of collection and disposal facilities here in Mulanje could be considered a problem, I think it could also be considered a positive. If my memory is correct (stretching back now further than is really comfortable), I believe in economic terms we could consider this ‘including the externality’. The negative effect is now felt by the creator – me. Why should my waste disposal be someone else’s problem? Why should it pollute somebody else’s garden? Why should it be taken away and kept in a big pile so I don’t have to think about it?
OK, I’m being a bit pedantic here. I realise that there are health / hygiene and sanitation reasons why this needs to be ‘managed’… but it’s made me stop and think. Even as somebody ‘environmentally conscious’, seeing my waste like this has made me stop and consider what and how I buy.
Here in Mulanje we are supporting a couple of local projects that have the potential to make a small difference to this big issue. The previous volunteer group supported a small youth group in establishing a paper recycling project. The group are collecting paper waste from local businesses and schools and generating a little income from the books and envelopes they are making. The current group have done a number of talks to youth groups about establishing composts. Once established these composts will help to reduce the garden landfill and can be used to support the tree nurseries that the groups are establishing to address deforestation and soil erosion and produce fruit that they can sell to support their activities. The picture above is from a tree planting exercise with a youth group yesterday. They are replanting along the river where flash floods killed two people a couple of years ago.
So, some questions for my friends back home…
Where does your waste go?
Would you buy / use this if it was going to end up in your garden?
Is there something else that’s environmentally friendly, or at least less destructive, that I could use instead?