Trash: Part One of Many

Why have I come to Dar, dozens of Tanzanians and wazungu alike have silently wondered?  In a word, I came east to find “trash,” or “rubbish” in local parlance.  While I’ve devoted much of my research career to hazardous waste—up to a handful of people (5!) in the US even recognize me as a brownfields policy expert—my Fulbright sabbatical in Tanzania specializes lower down the residuals chain in household solid waste.  How and why do people generate trash, get rid of it, and haul it off to somewhere less homey?  And how can the generation, ridding, and hauling work better?  So, you’ll hear more about trash than you ever thought possible over my next N blog posts!

To set the stage . . . . first recognize that Dar es Salaam disposes of roughly 2,000 tons of trash every day (not including recyclables) in its un-modern, un-sanitary landfill.  Such a volume requires 200-250 garbage truck loads daily driving to the recent disposal site, which lies 35 kilometers from the city center.  This represents a lot of garbage, maybe 5 or 6 times the daily production of Washington DC.  But now understand that another couple thousand tons of trash in Dar every day need disposal, but never make it to the landfill.

This second 2,000 tons represents the dirty, hidden, illegally-disposed half of Dar’s daily generation of more than 4,000 tons of garbage!  Of these off-the-record tons, the vast majority (three-quarters by some estimates) end up scattered in open spaces and stream courses, with some burned and the rest buried, like Jimmy Hoffa.  I don’t want

Watercourses can appear particularly trash nasty, because they present an inviting, linearly open space for dumping. And even though toilets may swirl backwards here in the southern hemisphere, water still flows downhill, so streams get tons of rubbish washed into them from upstream rains.
Watercourses can appear particularly trash nasty, because they present an inviting, linearly open space for dumping. And even though toilets may swirl backwards here in the southern hemisphere, water still flows downhill, so streams get tons of rubbish washed into them from upstream rains.

to exaggerate that trash appears everywhere, because some areas have only minimal amounts visible.  But a lot does appear across the landscape . . . my eyes and nose don’t lie.

As a simple example, on my run this morning through an upscale neighborhood I saw a bunch of (more than a hundred) VHS tapes smoking away on a rubbish burn pile.  Maybe you’re thinking no great loss to torch some of these B-grade, American export slasher films, but the smoldering heap threw up noxious fumes to an air column already high in particulates (dusty dirt roads comprise about 75 percent of Dar’s 2,000 kilometer street network).

Hopeful signs of attention to the trash problem and efforts to increase public awareness of it five blocks from our apartment.
Hopeful signs of attention to the trash problem and efforts to increase public awareness of it five blocks from our apartment.
And evidence of this problem four blocks from our apartment.
And evidence of this problem four blocks from our apartment.

Given the ubiquity of garbage in Dar, lots of trash talk takes place around the donor and community based organization crowd here, as it does elsewhere in the world.  Solid waste disposal unquestioningly represents a planetary BFD.  And donors, local municipalities, and community-based-organizations (e.g., Nipe Fagio) have come through in Tanzania with funds, studies, capacity building, education, musical PR events, and on-the-ground community activities to put action behind this talk.  Tangible results include the upcoming contentious ban on disposable plastic bags in the country, and a volunteer beach cleanup every month around the city.  And if you have money and can pay helpers to do the schlepping for you, or you don’t mind driving your bottles and cans to one of a couple repositories around the area, recycling also has arrived.

Yes, I’m researching trash here in Dar with highly honed academic skills, supported as a la-di-da Fulbright Scholar, but my more socially useful contributions may come from rubbish pickups such as one last weekend at a beach near our apartment. After totally baking in two hours of near-Equatorial sunshine, scrabbling for garbage on my hands-and-knees, I filled one of these bags (the biggest one in the picture, I think).
Yes, I’m researching trash here in Dar with highly honed academic skills, supported as a la-di-da Fulbright Scholar, but my more socially useful contributions may come from rubbish pickups such as one last weekend at a beach near our apartment. After totally baking in two hours of near-Equatorial sunshine, scrabbling for garbage on my hands-and-knees, I filled one of these bags (the biggest one in the picture, I think).

Still, the problem likely will grow, heap upon heap, in the near future.  The big trashy downside of higher, more western living standards for many in Tanzania comes from its associated higher per-capita trash generation.  Dar’s garbage generation exceeds Washington DC’s five-fold, not because its residents profligately generate trash, but because its population exceeds Washington, DC’s seven-to-eight-fold (that is, not a higher per capita rate here in Dar, but rather, vastly more capitas).  As it moves up the western consumption and packaging curve, Dar’s generation of trash likely will increase faster than technical improvements in trash collection and landfilling.

To close, in a one-half-floor elevator pitch soundbite, my work here aims to unearth clever household-level behavioral approaches to lighten Dar’s heap-upon-heap garbage problem.