While living in Togo, I had to learn what to do with garbage. There was no garbage pickup—of course in a place with no electricity or running water I hadn’t expected that—but somehow I was still surprised to learn that what I needed to to with any garbage I produced was go out into the courtyard and burn it.
It wasn’t much, as from my perspective, there wasn’t much to buy. The wrapper from a package of pasta or rice, a couple of Q-Tips, some unneeded Peace Corps training handouts. But whatever it was, it didn’t just disappear; it needed to be disposed of. This involved taking my small plastic bag (given away to hold purchases at the yovo-oriented stores in the city an hour away) of garbage outside, dousing it with the petrol I used for my lantern, and setting fire to it with a match, then making sure that the whole thing burned down to ashes. Once, I didn’t do a good job with the last part, and I saw that a neighbor boy had taken a candy wrapper from the trash bag and was waving it around proudly like a prize. Another child reported to me the next day that he had gone home and hung it on his wall. (In Togo, I found, there was “No Dessert.”)
I think of this now because I am troubled by the amount of garbage and “recycling” (in quotes because of what I learned about the woes of the recycling industry while writing this piece last year about food packaging) that we in America produce and then are able to drag out to the curb as someone else’s problem. Even as a waste-conscious person, who has increased the proportion of things I buy in bulk using my own containers, I see it. We are not really doing that good of a job. We are using more than our fair share of the Earth’s resources. And yet, I rationalize: that packet of tortellini is so convenient! The multicolored peppers wrapped in plastic are a better deal than hunting elsewhere for the loose ones!
If we all suddenly had to go out in our yards and burn everything we needed to get rid of, it might not be a bad wake-up call.