Sunday, November 09, 2014

One Man's Trash...

Trash elephant - downtown Livingstone, Zambia
A friend of mine came for a visit during the entire month of June. As she settled into the house, the inevitable question arose around garbage: “Do you have recycling?”

“Yes,” I hesitated, “But not in the way you may think.”

In the west, we are now hardwired to Reduce, Reuse, Recycle. But, the separation of tin cans and plastic and newspaper and soft cardboard that ends up in blue bins doesn’t exist here. What does exist is another, more interesting form, more along the "re-use" spectrum.

Malawians don't typically own a lot of stuff, so what they do have, they treasure. This includes trash. I’ve seen bottle tops wired together to make toys, baskets, plant holders, fridge magnets, trivets. I’ve seen pop cans slit open and hammered flat to make toy cars, notebook covers and house siding. Plastic bags can be woven together to make purses. Plastic bottles, in particular, are most treasured. As a side business, many Malawians make “thobwa” a sweet millet-based beer, or mlambe (baobob) juice, to sell, so these bottles are in high demand.

This type of recycling inevitably creates a weird dynamic for an American expat.  For one, you know without a doubt that your garbage is being gone through on a regular basis. How would your habits change if you knew without a doubt that someone (or perhaps even the whole neighborhood?) was going to see what you threw away? I bet you’d shred a lot more documents. You wrap those maxi pads extra thick. You waste less food.

Lifecycle of a sparkling water bottle: full, empty, and thobwa!
I’ve taken to leaving out bottles I know that my housekeeper will want to use in making thobwa. My gardener wanted to try a terrarium out of wine bottles, so I leave those to slowly become yard art. He also put together the chicken coop from cardboard boxes and plastic garbage bags. It looks kind of like hobo-town around here, but I think it's cool.

I also find myself not throwing things away because I either don’t want someone to find it, or I can’t bear to see that embarrassing thing show up somewhere else (old, hole-y underwear).

What remains is still too much (plastic bags, arg!) but overall, this reuse is kind of cool. It makes you aware of the value of things that we take for granted. The mish-mash of garbage toys and plastic lined thatch houses admittedly contributes to Malawi’s shabby feel, but it’s also a testament of ingenuity, its MacGyver-attitude. 

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