It’s called “waste” for a reason…

Back in the days when I worked in a furniture factory, there was a sarcastic but surprisingly effective sign in the workplace:

“When the floor is full please use the bins provided.”

overflowing bins

It’s a scene that could be found in just about any city, nowadays – at least at times. Technology offers alternatives, such as the Envac system of urban waste collection which uses vacuum tubes rather like a giant version of those pipe systems that you used to see speeding capsules around within department stores and hospitals. Very nice… but it seems likely that the cost of such a major infrastructure project will confine it to airports and showpiece communities for a long time to come.

I’ve seen a lot of litter in the last few weeks, on my travels in Southern Africa. The character of that litter varies from one country to another, and I can only assume that’s because the prevailing economic conditions in different places make for a different pattern of recycling. In Malawi, for example, you see very few plastic bottles, although the shreds of old plastic bags are seen everywhere amid the crops. (In Rwanda, shops can no longer give you a plastic bag, but this rule hasn’t been adopted elsewhere, yet.)

I have to make assumptions here (since a literature search has revealed almost nothing about the economics of recycling in Malawi) but presumably plastic bottles are sufficiently valuable to be worth collecting. One tiny piece of evidence was found:

“The next day is warm as we drive towards Lilongwe, the country’s capital. Blandina drains her water, winds down the window and tosses the plastic bottle from the car. I give a disapproving frown and glance back to see a child give chase as it cartwheels over the road. “I’m recycling,” says my genial guide. “He’ll use it for mango juice.” Beyond the safari tents and sundowners, Malawi’s poverty plays out at the roadside.”

– Phillips (2012)

If plastic bottles are worth collecting in Lilongwe, it seems they aren’t in Lusaka – so the wealthier city actually has a worse litter problem. Many empty lots in the city seem to have acquired a colourful stratum of them (although as I write this, the long-awaited rain has just arrived, so perhaps that will move much of the waste on, via the drains). I fully accept that I’m part of the problem, because my delicate British constitution means I’ve been consuming vast quantities of bottled water (plus Carlsberg ‘Green’ or Mosi lager by night, but that’s another story…)

In both Malawi and Zambia, the tax base is very narrow, and the governments have other, more pressing needs than worrying about litter. “Will Malawi cities, towns ever be sustainably clean?” asks the Nyasa Times (Ngwira, 2014) and that’s the real challenge: not an expensive burst of activity, but a lasting shift to a different way of doing things.

Waste plastic is actually a very valuable resource. A thermal depolymerisation process could be fed waste plastic (including the lower-value plastic bags and films) plus old tyres, biomass and a wide range of other things, yielding sufficient gas to run the process while also producing light crude oil of considerable value.

For that matter, one might ask why we don’t do more thermal depolymerisation in the UK…

Waste-to-oil requires investment, of course… but do you want to live in a world where it doesn’t happen?

Have a look at this ancient piece of pottery from the early Bronze Age, which is to say around 4,000 years ago. It was found in a burial mound where an unknown young man was sent on his journey into the next world, perhaps with an alcoholic drink…

beaker

Early Bronze Age beaker.

Nowadays, it can be seen in the Hull and East Riding Museum, and it is artefacts such as this one that gave us our name for these ancestors: the Beaker People. Once a culture that covered virtually all of Europe, I understand.

And it makes me wonder…

Four thousand years from now, will we be known as the Garbage People?

 

References:

Ngwira, S. (2014) ‘Will Malawi cities, towns ever be sustainably clean?’, Nyasa Times, August 16th [available online, accessed 4/11/2014]

Phillips, A. (2012) ‘All creatures great and small in Malawi’, The Independent on Sunday, July 15th [available online, accessed 4/11/2014]

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