Monday, February 27, 2012


Community trash pile in Aneho.

As a faithful hippee, I have always tried to avoid using plastic bags at the supermarket. I bring my backpack to carry food, and upon returning to the house I reuse the bags I was given. Since coming to Togo I have accumulated many more plastic bags. Here they are referred to as ‘sachets,’ and they come in all shapes, sizes, and colors. When I’m at the market vendors seem to automatically put everything I buy into a sachet before they sell it to me. Along with sachets, a whole heap of trash gets thrown out in the path, road, or field every day. Family and community trash piles continue to grow, causing health and sanitation problems and thwarting efforts at village beautification. The answer seems to be teaching villagers the consequences of littering and using incentives to encourage good behavior, but this may be a while in coming.

Further back in Togo’s history, everything used was biodegradable. Banana peels, palm branches, straw, and calabashes all came from the earth and would return if cast away. Then in the 20th century this changed. Industry began to make goods out of inorganic plastic, metal, and glass, and globalization brought many packaged foreign products in through the port in Lome to be sold in villages. Before throwing trash in a pit or to the side of the road was no problem, but now much of what is thrown out sits there or is ripped by time into smaller and smaller pieces. And it doesn’t go away.

So what do people throw out? Baterries, bottles, broken household goods, metal tomato paste and soft drink cans, and the ever popular sachets. Packaged ice cream made by the company Fanmilk is sold by villagers carting a cooler around on the back of a bike, and the colorful wrapping adds a bit of joy when cast into the eyesore that is a trash heap. Sachets seem to make up the bulk of the problem. They are given out with fruits, vegetables, and anything else bought at the market. Villagers also put beans and rice in black sachets, porridge in smaller, clear sachets, and other foods like a ‘to go’ order. After the food is eaten the sachet is dirty and gets thrown away. Women selling bread, dried banana chips, cooked eggs, and other treats reach in through the windows of bush taxis to sell to travelers, and the plastic sachets the food is wrapped with get cast along the side of the road. Even water, called Pure Water, is sold in sturdy clear sachets that villagers drink by biting a corner and sucking it out.

 The banana pit where my host family throws its trash.

Many families have a pit beside the house where they plant banana trees. Into this pit the family throws all the household’s garbage, and while the organic refuse fertilizes the soil and encourage bananas to grow the rest just sits there. Fields used for growing corn and cassava, especially those closer to urban areas, have more trash sitting on the surface or worked into the soil every day. I am not sure what effect this trash has on the bananas, corn, or cassava, or what long-term health difficulties await the Togolese due to ingestion of heavy metals and manufactured chemicals through their food, but I’m guessing not good.

Plastic sachets sold to vendors at the market in Anfoin.

Trash problems are highlighted in areas with high population pressure. Larger villages like Anfoin have a market which once a week is crowded with women selling food and men selling animals, and there are often vast trash piles which line the boundaries. Streams hold a particular place in my heart do to all my years doing field work for river research in North Carolina. I thought I had worked in some pretty gross streams, streams with low water quality or degraded geomorphology due to urbanization of the watershed. Here the urban streams are choked with trash, and I have seen meter-deep gutters in Lome filled to the brim. If I had an instrument to measure water quality, I’m not sure the readings would even be on the scale. There is a detour right after Aneho along the beach road that I take to get to Lome. It follows the beach, and all along the way people have used the shoreline as a dump for garbage. There is one big walled area on which it is written to jeter les ordures ici (throw trash here). It filled up a long time ago.

So what might be the solution to this rubbish problem? Projects have been conducted in the past to create trash collection programs in the larger cities with varying success, and two of the candidates for mayor in Anfoin have discussed creating such a program with me. My opinion is that this will address a cause and not the problem itself. To resolve this issue, we need to look at the source of the problem: the use of sachets. The Togolese need to decrease the amount of trash created before dealing with the trash that is already there. This starts with finding incentives for vendors to not give out sachets and for buyers to not take sachets. Vendors have to pay for sachets they give and surrounding trash can greatly hurt the presentation of whatever they are trying to sell. They might give an incentive for buyers to bring their own sacks, or they might wrap vegetables in giant teak tree leaves as has been done in the past. Some women selling sweet rolls and fried goods on the street give out smaller purchases on brown wrapping paper, and they could set an example for others. Villagers should be taught the difference between inorganic and organic materials and then begin separating them before throwing the organic stuff on their fields. A behavior change project, encouraging this with a few villagers and then following up to make sure the practice is continued, could help with the solution. Since many of the products that come from outside Togo come in packaging, villagers could buy local to avoid adding to the heap.

 Trash blows across a soccer field in Vogan.

In terms of getting rid of existing trash, burning is currently the popular choice. I have often walked through clouds of smoke where people are burning piles of plastic sachets, and this isn’t good for the lungs or for our already stressed atmosphere. One of the candidates for mayor has proposed a business-friendly solution: turn the trash into building blocks. He has read of a company in Nigeria that pays for plastic sachets, grinds them into powder, then mixes them with cement and water to make road bricks. Pure Water sachets are also great for doing tree nurseries (Natural Resource Management woot!). But in the end, much of the trash will probably need to be carted far away, dumped, and buried.

I’m still doing not much but talk about Moringa, but I may help plan and organize projects in the future to begin breaking down this wall of rubbish. By starting at the sources and encouraging behavior change, I have hope that we can fight the trash monster.


  1. Glad to hear that you're trying to tackle such a pressing problem!

    I think you're right to approach this from the side of the vendors. They're the ones who ultimately unleash the sachets into the environment, and should probably be "taxed" for using them.

    However, in the case of Togo, local government may not really exist, or at least they will lack the ability to levy taxes effectively. This might merit action at the national level, since you state that another choke point for the supply of sachets, above the vendors, is the port at Lome. Perhaps the national government could be convinced that the import of certain synthetic packagings is detrimental to per capita well-being.

    Batteries and heavy metals are a different story, though, and their disposal is probably the largest problem of all. I wonder if you could pay people a small sum to properly dispose of more toxic garbage, they won't toss it into their yards? Perhaps you could pay for such a subsidy by taxing the sale of sachets?

    Thanks for the updates, Ben. I'm always happy to hear stories from the ground. Ivory tower academia isn't so glorious!

  2. Hey Ben,
    I miss you.
    I was working all day at the Restaurant, thinking about telling you my troubles, I'm bummed out because a co-worker was treated unfairly, but now I'm too pooped to write you the letter you deserve. It wouldn't be a great one anyhow, but better than nothing, maybe I will addres the envelope, that's the hard part, and write something later.
    Susan is in Austin keeping Jo Foley company. The two of them have been tooling around town having a nice time. Greg is supposed to show up today, so Susan will head back in a few days. I'm glad, the house is too quiet, and smells bad because I haven't done housework.
    dunno how to fix the trash problem in Togo. In Michigan they have a 5-cent deposit on pop and beer cans, so you never see them by the roadside. I've learnde that one piece of litter is like a seed, if you leave it, then more grows.
    Batteries are another issue. They are bloody toxic.
    All typed out, Love you, Dad.