Talking Trash

Today, I walked the stoned and cavernous streets of a Nairobi slum with about a hundred volunteers all committed to cleaning up the trash and garbage that fills these streets on a weekly basis. Each week forty young people meet at the Lunga Lunga Biogas tower and organize themselves to collect trash from about 400 families or homesteads that have signed up and pay their ksh10 a week for the service. Ten shillings is about 5 cents in US equivalent currency.

The volunteers and their leadership don’t complain, they don’t shout at the government, they just show up and get the job done.

I have been to this site before and I have written about my experience. Each time I go, however, I leave amazed at their hope and amazed by my despair. When I am home in the States, I don’t even think about trash. I walk into my kitchen and if the trash can is full, I mean really full, I finally pull the trash bag out of the container and walk it out to the dumpster. Several times a week a large truck comes by and raises the dumpster over its hood and unloads the trash and garbage. I don’t smell it, I don’t examine it, I don’t even think about it. It is gone.

Trash is a big deal for the billion people who live on a $1 a day or less. Many of these people live in urban slums in Mumbai, Jakarta, Nairobi and Islamabad. They search the trash looking for things they can sell to the recyclers or as I saw today, a young man put a castoff sandwich in his pocket as he was picking up other garbage. Trash is a big deal to the poor. It doesn’t seem to be that big of a deal to governments whose populations are predominately poor. The squalor in these slums piles up and the indifference is palpable – thus my despair. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, global thinker and former U.S. Senator said, “A nation is judged by how it handles its waste. “ Really – I use to question. I am convinced now that he was right. Unmanaged trash can cause disease, including water born diseases such as diarrhea and cholera; infections from disposable needles, and lung diseases including the breeding ground for TB. Trash in the slums is highly flammable and destroys whole sections in a matter of minutes.

The list could go on and on. It is time that all of us start talking trash. It is time that we hold the global community such as the United Nations, the World Health Organization and the funders at the Gates Foundation to all the Global AID organizations from all the countries doing AID in the developing world to a higher standard of concern. Governments in the developing world should be pressured to focus on trash and waste management. It needs to become a priority of economic development.

Kenya is currently boasting a 5.5% increase in GDP. That is impressive given the economic down turn since the post-election violence of 2007-2008. Yet, this growth is offset by the disease and unemployment found in the slums of Nairobi. Government needs to show up when it comes to waste management.

Mobilize your organizations and your youth groups to begin thinking about the global impact of trash and how we can better manage our waste. There are things you can do. Find them and then do them.

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