Consider a huge conglomeration of cooking grease and oils mixed with grit, ash and feminine hygiene products, a solid mass reaching the size of a London double-decker bus; it is a sewage worker’s nightmare that has to be broken down with picks and drills before it will flow out of the sewers.
Dubbed fatbergs, a combination of ‘fat’ and ‘iceberg’ and likely to be a problem not just in London, these are just one battle in the war on waste. They also emit a stench likened to a combination of dog poo and vomit and those who deal with them should command the respect of the rest of us, living comfortable modern lives often blissfully unaware of the problems we create.
The mountains of solid waste, particularly non-biodegradable plastics, generated in developed countries used to be sent to China for a fee. But in 2018, China decided against being a dumping ground for the West no matter the payment. It had also prospered.
Other countries less well off and anxious to earn Western currency soon emerged — prominent among them the former British and Dutch colonies in Africa and Indonesia. According to Greenpeace, Africa is drowning in garbage, particularly non-biodegradable plastics.
Parents and children scour the mountains of plastics collecting items for resale, choice among them being transparent bottles, which can be melted down and recycled. Sad as it is, waste-pickers often fight over what we cannot imagine — discarded airline food, the dry rolls, congealed meat, tiny tubs of butter, all consumed before the containers are tossed into the plastics pile. Traders sitting along the edge will buy the plastic bottles made from polyethylene terephthalate (PET), also cardboard boxes — most valuable though are the metal cans. They buy dibbas (bags) full of like items. These bags, quite unwieldy for little children to carry, can take many hours to fill them full.
There is a pungency to the place from the noxious odors emitted, and reporters who have visited talk of watering eyes and a burning sensation in the throat. So there is a health cost and children who spend too much time there suffer from health problems like respiratory diseases and asthma.
Ever since China shut its doors to scrap plastic, the U.S., Australia and many European nations have been exporting their waste to countries without the infrastructure to process it. These countries are now swamped as greedy traders simply dump it where they can. As a result, plastic is filling the waterways, clogging roads and fields and even becoming mixed in with animal feed. Getting into the food chain is of course a recipe for disaster.
Clearly one answer is to ban single-use plastic and also for us as consumers to stop buying beverages packaged in them. To their credit, some beverage makers are changing to reusable containers — coke is one among others — but there is a very long way to go.
Should we let a small convenience in wealthy countries become a disaster in poor ones? That is the question we have to ask ourselves.