The long-awaited final observation

6 07 2010

Thank you all for the patience! I’ve had both some time to do the research and the time to write a post, as well as a few days of no internet (I might be in a big city, but I’m still in Africa.) So, finally, here it is:

The final observation I’ve made about the environment in Dar es Salaam is that it is dirty. I’m not talking in the sense that it is dusty, which it is—I am constantly surprised at the layer of dirt that has collected over every inch of me after each bike ride home—but rather in the amount of trash that litters every street, sidewalk, and storefront.

It’s hard to explain the sheer mass of litter, as it is something I just have never seen before. I suppose I have always taken for granted the waste management system and anti-litter education campaigns that we have in the US. Embedded into the dirt roads and swept up in the sand along the sides of the street are shreds of plastic from shopping bags, bottles, and food packaging, pieces of cloth torn from colorful kangas, shirts, towels and rags. Pieces of Styrofoam, bottle tops, cardboard, and newspaper. Glass and metal shards from bottles and cans. Every type of construction debris you could think of. There is so much litter that has clearly been lying along the ground for so long, blowing around in the wind until it pinned itself into this corner or that, tangled around a low-lying twig, or embedded itself into the dusty road or tangled in the grass of someone’s yard, that you can no longer tell what it originally was but just know that it is a piece of trash. The trash is plowed into the soil at the end of the small fields I bike past on my way to work, little weeds growing right out in between. It floats in the water of the drainage ditches along the main roads. It washes up in the waves of the bay in front of my house, becoming stranded along the rocks and the seashells when the tide goes out.

About a week ago, I biked past a trash collecting truck. This big, open, dump truck was pulled over on a busy road along the beach. Two men were up on the bed of the dump truck, pulling up sisal baskets brought to them from the other men, dumping them into the pile, and handing the baskets back down. My eyes followed the men on the ground, and realized there was a nice long assembly line of 10 men passing sisal baskets full of trash from a large mound close to the start of the beach, up to the truck along the road. My eyes scanned up and down the length of the beach, and I noticed that there were these large mounds lined up the whole way—something that was not there the day before. Apparently, today was trash day, and the way trash day works is that you dump your trash into one of these piles for the trash people to then come collect. A breeze blew threw, and I thought “no wonder the trash ends up everywhere.”

Solid waste management in an urban area is actually a pretty interesting phenomenon. There are a lot of people producing waste in a small area, and in today’s modern age that waste is not exactly easily decomposed and cycled back into the ecological system it came from. The municipality must organize a system to collect, remove, and dispose of that waste in a timely fashion, and the community must be educated, trained, and motivated to comply with the system…and that takes a good amount of money and effort.

According to several sources that I read (a basic internet search, nothing fancy) Dar es Salaam is aware that they have a “trash problem”, and cite the city’s rapid growth over the past 20 or so years has resulted in a stretch of infrastructure and a struggle for the services to keep up. Much of trash collection and waste disposal is done “informally”, where a person is employed to collect the trash from a household or other establishment at a regular rate, and that trash is then brought to either a public collection site (like I saw along the beach) or is dumped in some other open space that is informally deemed the spot for trash.

If trash collection is so informal and inadequate, I’m sure you can imagine that “recycling” is not a formal, organized practice either. Recycling is essentially non-existent. All trash goes out together: paper, plastic, cans, and food scraps. It is common for, again informally, people to sort through the trash at larger collection places. Rather than “recycle”, the good-condition pieces have the possibility of being reused for other purposes. Metal scraps and cans are cut and crafted into all sorts of trinkets to sell to tourists or decorate a home. One home I pass on my way to work used pieces of glass bottles cemented into the top of the wall as a substitute for barbed wire. I think it looks quite nice!

In some ways, you quickly get used to the “uncleanliness”. At first I was shocked, but by now it’s become a part of the landscape of Dar es Salaam. Riding my bike to and from work, the metal bottle caps sparkle under the road as they catch the sun. The pieces of plastic, cardboard, and cloth add color to the otherwise dusty brown roads. It’s almost pretty.

And really, aside from aesthetics, why should we care about where our trash goes? Whats the real harm?
Well, first there is the environmental concerns of the health of an ecosystem: Animals, unlike people, don’t differentiate so well between “tiny piece of plastic” and “piece of food”, nor do they stop to think “that orange rind on the ground might not be clean to eat.” With Dar es Salaam being a coastal city, they have the additional concern of the ocean ecosystem. Trash in the ocean is not good for aquatic life. For example, fish ingest small pieces of plastic, cloth, or other items that they cannot digest, which can result in death. Or, the level of xenobiotic compounds (fancy way of saying “compounds that aren’t natural to the system”) cause reproductive failures or hormone changes that affect the population-level health of the organism. Dar es Salaam has a long history and dependence on the fishing industry here, and I would imagine that decreased health of the aquatic ecosystem would not be a good thing for the people who live here.

Aside from the concerns for wildlife, the trash also is a direct source of concern for humans. Certain types of litter, such as plastic or glass bottles and intact plastic bags, will collect water during rains which can then become breeding pools for disease-carrying insects (more mosquitoes=more malaria…) or harmful bacteria. Overflowing litter and trash clogs water drainage systems, again encouraging stagnant water to breed insects and harmful microorganisms. There are also issues of water quality and soil quality, as most of the litter contains chemically-derived colors, textures or other qualities (notice how the “cardboard” juice cartons don’t soak through? That’s because are lined with water-repellant materials. And how plastics come in all sorts of flexibilities and hardnesses…ah the wonders of chemistry) and over time and with the effects of weather, those compounds will deteriorate down to their chemical building blocks, which then seep into our water and soil and cause a huge array of potential complications for population-level health. Litter also attracts rats and other scavenging animals that can also transmit diseases to humans- noticeable here in Dar es Salaam is the crows (though, with the struggling internet I am unable to find any factual information about crows and public health or crows in Dar, so please take this to mean that the crows are going to infect us all with deadly diseases…I’m just observing that the crows here are intense scavengers of the litter, and generally scavenging animals are a concern for zoonotic disease). And last, like was mentioned already in a previous posting, given the hot environment here in the tropics, food quickly and easily grows mold and bacteria that can cause illness…and the residue of foods left on trash is not an exception to that.

So why not do something about it?! Trash collection and cleaning up the litter should be one of Dar es Salaams top priorities, right? Well, in some ways sure. I just gave you tons of reasons why the trash is a problem. But to implement proper trash collection AND litter cleanup campaigns, we would need a lot of money and community-wide mobilization, like I said already. It would also would need improvements in infrastructure like better roads, so that trash collection trucks could move through the city easily and actually reach the places where people are packed in, creating their waste—a massive project. In a city like Dar es Salaam, where money tight and needed everywhere, how does one take on a project that big, a project which would take decades before any positive, but still relatively indirect, return can be identified? As has been seen again and again with development across the world and even here in the US, litter is something that takes the backburner until other societal issues are addressed and quality of living has improved.

(As a side note, if anyone can find for me a list of “dirtiest cities” or “most littered cities”, post it as a comment. I was having a frustratingly hard time searching for one on the not-so-great internet connection. But, I am almost certain that Dar es Salaam is not on the list. Meaning that, while I did just rant about the “dirtiness” of this city, we must keep some perspective. They are, I am sad to say, actually doing well compared to many other places around the world.)

– Kristen Pfau



2 responses

6 07 2010

Hi Kristen! So I did a quick internet search too, which turned up a 2008 Forbes article that lists the top 25 dirtiest cities in the world. The article places Dar Es Salaam as the 12th dirtiest city; in fact, the vast majority of the top 25 dirtiest cities in the world are in Africa.

Article is here:

That’s the best I could find for a short search! (Just fyi, a search for “most littered cities” actually turns up your blog post as one of the top hits.) Hope that’s helpful!

19 07 2010

Hello Kristen,

I have been doing some research on the Solid Waste Management and from what I gather so far everybody talk about the problem but nobody is taking any steps to ractify it. I am grateful that you are able to stress this in your blog. Its time we mobilize and make a different.

You was right being from the US myself you never pay attention to the little thing we take for granted like trash day…..

As concerning your search for the dirties cities in the world I came up with the same 2008 Forbes list

Look forward to hearing from you soon

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