One of the most prominent features of the average street in my rural village of Leona, aside from the sand, is the trash. It lines the streets — mainly plastic bags, packaging, the occasional discarded sandal. Plastic and processed goods have reached rural Senegal, but there is simply no centralized location to discard them when they break. Upon seeing this trash, my Western knee-jerk reaction was, “This is horrible for the environment. What a shame!” I now realize that this is valid, but far from the whole story.
There may be trash everywhere, but the average family in Leona, Senegal produces far less waste than the average family in my hometown of Fond du Lac, Wisconsin. The difference is that the residents of Leona have no centralized location to dispose of the waste, whereas at my house in Wisconsin, the trash is collected weekly and taken “away.” No one really seems to know or care where it is going – only that they don’t have to worry about it anymore. The trash situation in the United States is best summarized as “Out of sight out of mind.” Because we can’t see the trash, we can conveniently forget that all that trash is indeed harming the environment. However, just because my family in the United States disposes of its trash in a landfill does not necessarily mean that our actions have a smaller impact on the environment. In fact, I would argue the opposite – that my Senegalese family has a smaller environmental impact in the long term, even though they “litter” on a daily basis.
The difference lies in the quantity. When one considers the resources and energy required to manufacture the great quantity of packaging and ultimately transport it to a landfill it becomes apparent that my family has a greater environmental impact, from a macroscopic point of view. While my Senegalese family’s lack of a central trash disposal system may have a more superficial, temporary environmental impact, the resources consumed to manufacture, transport and dispose of the comparatively large quantity of my family’s trash in the United States has an even greater environmental impact in the long term. Trash disposal here is certainly a problem, but perhaps I and other Westerners astonished by all the “littering” in developing countries should examine our own practices and decide who is really doing greater harm to the environment.