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Living with garbage

A "do not litter" sign surrounded by a sea of garbage in Malawian suburb, Ndirande. The roadside has become an informal dumpsite for residents and market traders. Photo by Sarah Berman.
A "do not litter" sign surrounded by a sea of garbage in Malawian suburb, Ndirande. The roadside has become an informal dumpsite for residents and market traders. Photo by Sarah Berman.


“What day is garbage day?” I asked my landlord upon arriving in Malawi.

Expecting her to mention a day of the week, or perhaps direct me towards a calendar affixed to the refrigerator, I was confused by her silence and contemplative blinking. After a few moments of discomfort, I soon learned garbage day doesn’t exist.

In Blantyre, Malawi’s commercial hub, only 30 per cent of the city has access to waste collection—which, as it turns out, doesn’t include my current home. Our garbage doesn’t disappear from the curb like it would in any Canadian city; like most Malawians, we deposit all of our household waste into a metre-deep pit in our yard.

“We do not have any reliable city bins close to our home. The only city bins in this area are at quite a distance from us,” explains Anne Kafuwa, a resident in Blantyre’s largest urban township, Ndirande. Rather than rely on local government to manage waste, Kafuwa takes garbage collection into her own hands.

As she sits in front of her house peeling potatoes, I ask Kafuwa where her food scraps will end up.

“We have a garbage pit near our house,” she says, motioning backward with her peeling knife. “But we always maintain this pit when it is filled.”

Kafuwa explains that when the pit becomes full, she burns the excess and covers the ashes in soil—a low-impact disposal method taught to Malawian children in school.

In the absence of waste management infrastructure, residents simply maintain their own miniature landfills.

Unfortunately for residents like Kafuwa, not all garbage in Ndirande is managed quite as responsibly. With no rules in place, many residents and market traders informally dump their garbage behind supermarkets or in fields.

Public litter is a common sight, and a problem the municipal government is well aware of.

“We don’t yet have the capacity to collect refuse in unplanned residential areas,” says Robert Kawiya, director of parks, recreation and environment for the Blantyre City Assembly.

With scarce equipment and Blantyre’s sole landfill in Mzedi nearing full capacity, Kawiya says “it’s largely up to residents to sort garbage at a household level.”

Although garbage may appear in the streets and gutters more often, Malawians actually create much less waste than Canadians. According to Kawiya, people in Blantyre produce an average of 0.9 kg of waste per capita per day—81 per cent of which is organic and biodegradable. This figure is nearly doubled in most Canadian cities, according to Environment Canada.

The difference is that Malawians see the impact of their own consumption on a daily basis—something I as a Canadian, had never experienced.

Knowing my own consumables will travel just a few metres from my doorstep to a hole in the ground, I have become acutely aware of my personal ecological footprint. Opting against plastic bags at the grocery store was already a natural habit, but I’ve found myself leaning toward produce over packaged food more than ever before.

Plastic bottle? No thanks. Paper napkin? I’ll wash my hands.

This awareness has led city officials to see piles of waste as an income-generating resource. “A project is now developing to harness methane gas as fuel,” says Kawiya, adding that the project could generate three megawatts of electricity for the city. Another proposal would see organic waste turned into useful fertilizer.

But like in Canada, the success of such projects relies on individuals and communities to remain wary of the things they choose to throw away. “Communities are key in development,” Kawiya says. “There are simple things that make a huge difference.”

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