Tag Archives: Environment

Living with garbage

A "do not litter" sign surrounded by a sea of garbage in Malawian suburb, Ndirande. The roadside has become an informal dumpsite for residents and market traders. Photo by Sarah Berman.

“What day is garbage day?” I asked my landlord upon arriving in Malawi four months ago.

Expecting her to mention a day of the week, or perhaps direct me towards a calendar affixed to the refrigerator, I was confused by her silence and contemplative blinking. After a few moments of discomfort, I soon learned garbage day doesn’t exist here.

In Blantyre, Malawi’s commercial hub, only 30 per cent of the city has access to waste collection—which, as it turns out, doesn’t include my current home. Our garbage doesn’t disappear from the curb like it would in any Canadian city; like most Malawians, we deposit all of our household waste into a metre-deep pit in our yard.

“We do not have any reliable city bins close to our home. The only city bins in this area are at quite a distance from us,” explains Anne Kafuwa, a resident in Blantyre’s largest urban township, Ndirande. Rather than rely on local government to manage waste, Kafuwa takes garbage collection into her own hands.

As she sits in front of her house peeling potatoes, I ask Kafuwa where her food scraps will end up.

“We have a garbage pit near our house,” she says, motioning backward with her peeling knife. “But we always maintain this pit when it is filled.”

Kafuwa explains that when the pit becomes full, she burns the excess and covers the ashes in soil—a low-impact disposal method taught to Malawian children in school.

In the absence of waste management infrastructure, residents simply maintain their own miniature landfills.

Unfortunately for residents like Kafuwa, not all garbage in Ndirande is managed quite as responsibly.  With no rules in place, many residents and market traders informally dump their garbage behind supermarkets or in fields.

Public litter is a common sight, and a problem the municipal government is well aware of.

“We don’t yet have the capacity to collect refuse in unplanned residential areas,” says Robert Kawiya, director of parks, recreation and environment for the Blantyre City Assembly.

With scarce equipment and Blantyre’s sole landfill in Mzedi nearing full capacity, Kawiya says “it’s largely up to residents to sort garbage at a household level.”

Although garbage may appear in the streets and gutters more often, Malawians actually create much less waste than Canadians. According to Kawiya, people in Blantyre produce an average of 0.9 kg of waste per capita per day—81 per cent of which is organic and biodegradable. This figure is nearly doubled in most Canadian cities, according to Environment Canada.

The difference is that Malawians see the impact of their own consumption on a daily basis—something I as a Canadian, had never experienced.

Knowing my own consumables will travel just a few metres from my doorstep to a hole in the ground, I have become acutely aware of my personal ecological footprint. Opting against plastic bags at the grocery store was already a natural habit, but I’ve found myself leaning toward produce over packaged food more than ever before.

Plastic bottle? No thanks. Paper napkin? I’ll wash my hands.

This awareness has led city officials to see piles of waste as an income-generating resource. “A project is now developing to harness methane gas as fuel,” says Kawiya, adding that the project could generate three megawatts of electricity for the city. Another proposal would see organic waste turned into useful fertilizer.

But like in Canada, the success of such projects relies on individuals and communities to remain wary of the things they choose to throw away. “Communities are key in development,” Kawiya says. “There are simple things that make a huge difference.”

The environmental cost of charcoal

Charcoal is ubiquitous in Malawi; it’s sold on the side of the road and used by most to cook.

Trees harvested for charcoal are rapidly depleting and many are being urged to stop illegal charcoal burning and selling by environmentalists. They’re warning that if the number of trees continues to decline, Malawians will soon be facing other problems such as soil erosion and access to water, which will strain agricultural production.In a country where most people are farmers, this is a devastating projection.

In this video, Malawian journalist, Earlene Chimoyo and Journalists for Human Rights reporter Denis Calnan investigate charcoal usage and the challenges in limiting its usage.

Ghana Needs a Solution for its Pollution

Ghana is a beautiful country.  Tall, sun-drenched palm trees, wide open blue skies, pristine beaches and ocean surf, burning garbage piles on the side of the road… wait, what?  I imagine you just saw a vacation brochure image of the country cough, sputter, and die in your mind, much like the delivery truck I saw this morning cough, sputter, and die, leaving pedestrians coughing and sputtering in a wake of black-as-night emission fumes.  No one dies, however.  At least not yet.

It’s one of the harsh realities of developing countries; environmental concerns come far behind political stability, sustainable economy, and food safety on the government’s priority list.  Yet a country of Ghana’s wealth and progress should not be ignoring environmental concerns like it is now.  My daily walk to work, about a 30-minute, three-kilometre commute, includes more exhaust fumes than a drag race.  The infamous Kumasi traffic jams are partly to blame; from personal experience sitting in a colleague’s vehicle, you can be stuck in the same spot for twenty minutes without moving at any given time on any given day.  Even still, most drivers choose to keep their vehicles idling, a combination of wanting to keep their radios and air-conditioners running, but also because restarting a stick-shift car (the overwhelming majority of vehicles here are stick) is an absolute nightmare on the hills here (or anywhere, for that matter.)  The resulting output of emissions is a serious health hazard to both drivers sitting in traffic, but also the pedestrians walking on the side of the roads, especially the street vendors who wait precisely until traffic is at a standstill to wander out among the cars to hawk their wares.

And yet even when traffic is moving, the problem doesn’t go away.  There is nothing that resembles Canadian Air Care here; cars and trucks motor along spewing out clouds of smoke so dark that they blot out the sky, at least momentarily.  These often end up mixing with the smoke from nearby burning piles of trash, a method which, unfortunately, seems to be the only means of waste disposal here.

Just this past Saturday, Leah and I helped with a “spring cleaning” of sorts for the Kapital Radio newsroom.  We moved out heaps upon heaps of old papers, dusty books, cracked CDs and cassette tapes, some old furniture – you name it, we pulled it out of the newsroom.  There was so much dust that it looked like Leah had finally tanned.  What did we do with said garbage?  Took it to the roadside opposite Kapital Radio and set fire to the lot (after the neighbourhood kids had pillaged the pile for anything remotely interesting, of course.)  When we asked if this was standard procedure, our colleagues replied in the affirmative, and seemed shocked when we told them of how Canadians recycle much of what goes in the trash.

Ghana’s Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) recognizes that there is a problem – a recently published report from the government organization ranked Ghana as 108th in the world for greenhouse gas emissions, which is far ahead of some other African nations but still deplorable for a country progressing as quickly as Ghana is.

Again, I reiterate that this is a beautiful country.  But everyday, that beauty is being marred by the abundance of harmful smoke that affect the country’s environment and the health of its people.  Harmful smoke from idling cars, harmful smoke from diesel-swallowing trucks, harmful smoke from burning garbage piles of plastic bags and empty bottles.  Harmful smoke that has Ghana’s citizens coughing and sputtering on a daily basis.  No one dies, however.  At least not yet.