Plastic bags from here to Timbuktu

We’ve come a long way from this:

From TV series "Mad Men", set in the 1960's. In this scene Betty dumps litter from a family picnic

There is a long way to go, however.  We should take a lesson on how people in Mali, Africa tackle litter.

Mali’s trash is on my radar because our daughter is in the Malian city of Bamako. She was advised to bring plastic bags for trash storage because host families don’t always make it clear what happens to the stuff they aren’t using anymore.

Waste disposal is a huge problem. Here is a main street in Timbuktu:

Timbuktu street. Source:

The  city of Bamako is growing at an astronomical pace.  100,000 people lived there in 1950, now the population is about 2,000,000.  The huge influx overwhelmed infrastructure, threatening water supplies and creating hazardous living conditions.  In 2008 the Mercer Health and Sanitation Index rated Bamako the 16th dirtiest city in the world (Source:

So how trash is handled in Mali?  Answer 1:  Not very well.  Official pickup is sporadic, and people tend to just drop trash wherever.

Answer 2:  when they do pick it up, trash is handled creatively and energetically.

Maybe more creatively than we do in Eugene, Oregon.

Here’s where 46% of our trash ends up:

Short Mountain Landfill

Here’s where 85% of Bamako’s trash ends up (Click image for full report):
Finished Goods, the Bamako Recycling Market

Reclaimed, reused, recycled.

In another Malian city, Mopti, a former plague of plastic bags is transformed into paving stones:

A video of a Bamako dump, being sorted by hand.  Don’t miss the boy in the Obama tee shirt, perusing his prize find:

May your next picnic clean-up be inspired by Malians, not Betty Draper.

Families picnicking in a Bamako park.  Photo by Bruce Whitehouse, anthropologist,


  • Hi Julia – many Bamakois simply leave their trash wherever they feel like dumping it, and somebody later might come along to sweep it up and/or recycle it. So it’s still Betty Draper but with a twist!


    • Free market capitalism at it’s best?

      I guess people are pretty much the same everywhere.

      Too complicated a subject really for a single blog post. Linked to another blogger who said that 85% of the trash is recycled, but am not sure what that means. People use stuff more than once? 85% of what is collected is reclaimed? Wondered about off-gassing of plastic paving stones causing health problems.

      The idea just snagged me, though, and I couldn’t let it go.

      Your photos are beautiful. Thanks. J


  • Enlightening article. I moved to Italy last month from the US, and they make us work here to dispose of trash. There are seven different trash days for different types ….
    you know what, you have just inspired me to blog about trash collection. lol. I will include this post of yours in it as well. 🙂


    • Seven trash days! How do you keep track of them? I guess that’s the way to do it, though, if it’s going to be done right.

      When you start digging into trash, there is a lot to be said. Just under the surface a world of complicated machinations.

      Looking forward to your blog.



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