Every Thursday night I wheeled our 60-gallon trash container out to the curb. Every Friday morning, the city garbage truck trundled by before breakfast. A flock of collectors lept off the back and with a series of whistles as arcane as bird calls, coordinated the street’s pick-up and returned to their perch on the truck.
Toddlers love trucks and our boys — the twins just two years old and their brother age three when this scene first unfolded — proved no exception. The big wheels, the vroom of the engine, the swallowing of trash bags, all fascinating. But Cape Town’s garbage trucks offered something more, something both hilarious and mischievous: a giant ball of poo emblazoned on its side.
“Not poo,” I told them after many questions. “It’s dung.”
Poo, dung, what could be funnier to little boys? But the image struck me as funny, too. Behind the massive ball, a beetle — a dung beetle, I explained — nudged its tasty repast through the sand. “Nature knows no waste,” read the slogan beneath.
Nature knows no waste? But this garbage truck collected an entire neighborhood of 60-gallon bins each week. Milk jugs, juice containers, cereal boxes: bins overflowed with waste. In this sea of trash, the municipality’s message, which, let’s face it, portrayed poo consumption, seemed ironic if not completely radical.
Nevertheless, if Cape Town sought to spread the no-waste word so graphically, I reasoned, the recycling truck must be on its way. I hoarded our own milk jugs and wine bottles in the corner of the basement and waited. I scoured the neighborhood for telltale blue boxes or multi-colored recycling stations. I soon learned that Cape Town had no curbside recycling program but that dedicated enviros could bring their hoarded jugs and bottles to the “waste drop-off center.”
Information on this “drop-off” seemed sketchy but websites assured me of recycling facilities. I followed the map down a short dirt road not far from our suburb. A cluster of men sat on crates and plastic lawn chairs outside a wooden hut and waved me to the left. The road led to a steep incline and ended abruptly on a concrete platform. There I sat suspended a good ten feet above dumpsters and heaps of dead trees. Now what? As if in response, half a dozen faces appeared at the car windows – children’s faces. Twelve diminutive hands pulled my recycling bags from the trunk and with practiced fluidity tossed them off the platform into the dumpsters below.
“Um, well, thank you,” I managed as I returned to the driver’s seat.
The tallest boy, maybe ten years old, approached the window. “Where are you from?” he asked in heavily-accented, perfect English. Clearly, I was not from around here.
His smile broadened. “Canada! Very cold!” I nodded and smiled and wanted to leave. I wanted to return to familiar ground, where I knew the rules, where children didn’t have to pick through the dump.
With varying levels of dedication, I’ve been an “enviro” my entire adult life. Before we moved to South Africa, before the twins had even turned two, I bought a thick manual called Teaching Green. I intended to continue green living in Cape Town, and I intended to give my children a precocious environmental education. After that morning at the drop-off, however, I knew my lessons would need some revision.
Among all the countries in the world, South Africa and its northern neighbor, Namibia, have widest gulf between the rich and poor. Economically, they are the most unequal societies on the planet. A twenty-minute drive through Cape Town illustrates the extremes: from five bedroom Tuscan-style homes to shacks of plastic sheeting and wood scraps; from backyard swimming pools and computerized irrigation to rows of outdoor toilets and a single communal tap; from homes that fill a 60-gallon trash bin to children who salvage the waste. This shocking disparity has altered my perspective on everything we own and how we throw it away.
Thomas turned four the year we moved to South Africa. We held a small North American-style party with helium balloons and cake. He got a new train, books, more Legos. From one friend he received a push-toy made from wire, electrical tape and a tuna fish can. When the toy is rolled on the floor, a little wireman beats the tuna can like a drum. Thomas appreciated this gift both for the gesture and the creativity. He knew his friend engineered it from recyclables, and too, that his friend could afford little else. Thomas knew, in fact, that we passed our old toys and clothes along to his family. Even to a four-year-old, environment and equality entwined.
Cape Town teems with elegant crafts made from waste. A silver-leaf vase on my desk is fashioned from pop can tabs. The airplane hanging from the boys’ bedroom ceiling was once a motor oil tin. Exquisite baskets and bracelets woven from telephone wire fill market stalls. Such ingenuity, self-sufficiency and frugality command respect. Conditions that necessitate a livelihood built on other people’s waste — that offer no alternatives — demand attention.
Golden, the man who crafted my pop-tab vase, began recycling tins many years ago. He lived in a squatter’s camp with five daughters and no job. Now his daughters are in university. Golden has raised a family on vases and tin flowers grown, as he says, from the “rubbish dump.” The Afrikaans word skarrel translates as “scurry” but recently, skarreling has come to mean scurrying through, or picking through waste. It is dangerous work but in a country with 25% unemployment, skarreling provides income for tens of thousands.
Last August, Cape Town instituted curbside recycling, a pilot program in our suburb. Now, in addition to our 60-gallon trash bin, we have a recycling bin, also on wheels and equipped with a radio-frequency ID tag to record how often it’s used. Good news. Except few things in South Africa are straightforward, few things categorically good or bad. Yes, we have curbside recycling and RFID-tagged bins, but many rural communities and townships still wait for reliable trash collection and sewage disposal. The drop-off has now closed, the children I met no longer forage there, but where have they gone and how do they make money? No child should have to skarrel waste. But as Cape Town moves toward formal recycling, the informal “waste pickers” (their term) have organized to gain respect, to improve working conditions, and to maintain a job.
I knew none of this when I arrived in South Africa with my Teaching Green manual, when I grew indignant at the lack of orderly recycling facilities, when my boys fell over themselves at the mention of poo. In truth, the jokes haven’t changed much, but my environmental lessons have evolved. My boys know that recycling isn’t simply hauling our fancy new bin to the curb, that for many people, it’s a means to survive. They know reuse can be ingenious, creative and sometimes a necessity. Reducing? They’re not so keen on it, especially when it comes to toys. They have learned, however, that the world is not always fair. And I have learned that “teaching green” means teaching social as well as environmental justice, the two entwine like the silver leaves reclaimed and layered on my desktop vase.