One Person’s Trash Bag is Another’s Treasure

The garbage bin outside gets emptied once a week, almost as if we were living in a real city with real city services. I’m not sure what the trash guys do with all the bins after they load them onto a flat-bed truck and haul them away, and I don’t think I want to know. But a few hours later they return an empty, semi-clean bin to each house, and for that I’m grateful.

Despite being emptied once a week and maybe even rinsed, our garbage bin, from time to time, stinks. Reeks, really. I try not to investigate it too closely and just hold my breath when passing by. But a series of strange occurrences recently led me to look a little closer.

We’ve known for some time that people go through our trash. Little things that we’ve thrown away have a tendency to turn up again amongst the maid’s or gardener’s belongings. We’ve also known for some time that plastic bags are kind of valuable. When we first moved here, for example, I noticed a certain stink coming from the trash can in the kitchen, which seemed to get worse day after day. Eventually I found that Viviane was emptying the contents into the bin outside, rinsing out the plastic trash bag, and then returning it to the kitchen, ready to receive new trash. I told her that was disgusting and she was certainly authorized to get a new plastic bag every time. I showed her the new roll of trash bags I kept under the kitchen sink and her eyes widened at this incredible stash of what is apparently a precious resource here.  I must say I felt a little guilty at the moment for choosing not to recycle them.

The other day I was outside picking some flowers for a dinner party when a stranger wearing a gardener’s uniform came by and opened my garbage bin, poking around and studying the contents. In French, we had the following conversation:

Me: What are you doing?

Her: It’s ok, I work here.

Me: Yeah but what are you doing?

Her: Oh, we need plastic bags for our work.

Me: Why don’t you have your own plastic bags, if it’s for work?

Her: They’re finished.

“Finished” (or terminé in French) is the word used in this country and all parts south to mean either we just ran out, or we don’t stock it. I’ve heard it in grocery stores a million times. Do you have any milk? It’s finished. Butter? Also finished. How about quinoa imported from Peru? Pause. Finished.

Today there’s a gang of women in these same uniforms working outside, hacking at weeds in the gravel with their metal hoes. That is, when they’re not resting on someone’s porch, shouting at each other just outside our open windows, or taking bananas from my neighbor’s tree or mangoes from mine, the one fruit tree we have, which we’ve babied from a seedling and is bearing fruit for the very first time.

It was during one of their many breaks that I had to take the trash out. The garbage bin is at one of its peak worsts at the moment, swarming with flies. As I lifted the lid to deposit my trash bag inside, fighting a gag reflex, I noticed a pile of rubbish on the bottom. Just rubbish, with no plastic bag. Trash I had deposited earlier was now neatly spread out on the bottom like a pile of mulch, quickly decomposing. As I put the new trash bag on top of this mess, I felt all the ladies’ eyes boring down on me.

Their hoeing work had stopped as soon as I had opened the door to come outside. Half of them were resting comfortably on my garden hedges. The other half rested their heads on their hoes as they studied me, a strange and exotic breed of housewife in action. In response to their stares I said hello and how are you and then got out of there as quickly as possible. The ladies carefully watched me go back inside and shut the door. Then they started making a lot of noise, and not from their hoes.

My windows on that side of the house are high, and I couldn’t see out of them well enough to see what was going on. So I called my neighbor across the street, whose huge sliding glass doors face our direction. She described the scene to me: some ladies resting, others standing, and others going through my trash, emptying plastic bags, and laying them on the plants in my garden to dry out in the sun, where there were already several others.

The trash I had just taken out included used kitty litter, fish scraps from last night’s dinner, and lord knows what else. Fish scraps which will soon be leaking out the bottom of the bin onto our sidewalk in the African heat. Fish scraps that will attract all manner of animals later that night. I didn’t know whether to get angry with them or give them their own new roll of trash bags, for goodness sakes. Instead I called Seb who called the ladies’ supervisor who showed up right away, questioning them about why they were taking all these plastic bags. Turns out they didn’t need them for work. After a few loud and energetic exchanges in Swahili (the only word I could make out was the supervisor’s hapana, no), he told us they said they needed the plastic bags to carry their raincoats.

Which makes zero sense. Or maybe this was an error in translation and they meant to say they used them as raincoats. But I don’t believe that either; I don’t usually see people walking around town wearing a trash bag as a raincoat. (That only happens at amusement parks back home.) Especially not ladies who are actually employed and can afford slightly better than that. No, the truth is probably that they wanted to take them home, where, like my maid, they would reuse them several times. And they probably felt that once I let go of mine outside, it became community property. Just like my mango tree. And they probably used the raincoat excuse to make the supervisor feel responsible for providing them.

Seb tells me the landfill is like this, and worse. The landfill is one of the busiest places in the province, he said, just crawling with people looking for stuff. It’s unsafe, to say the least, and the company is held liable for accidents even when people are doing utterly illegal things, like stealing fuel from a moving haul truck before it runs over them. (True story.) So the company has had to invest in solutions for some of the more dangerous stuff, like a crusher for steel drums that used to hold oil, grease, or toxic solvents before it gets repurposed in town for drinking water or homemade beer, and a shredder for sacks that used to hold sulphur or quicklime and can spontaneously combust if accidentally put together.

You would think used kitty litter and fish scraps would be enough to deter plastic bag thieves from my garbage bin, but apparently I’ll have to look for another solution. Though I have to say, this whole experience has made me question the need for trash bags at all. How spoiled we are, that even our trash has to be neatly packaged so that we don’t have to see (or smell) it? In 2008 Rwanda outlawed plastic bags completely. Recently we were traveling through Rwanda, just stopping at the airport, and the flight attendants announced over the PA that all passengers disembarking there should double-check their luggage for any plastic bags or they would be confiscated on arrival. I travel with plastic bags often — for my dirty laundry, my shoes, around my shampoo bottles. I like the idea behind the initiative, but think it would be rather challenging to live with zero plastic bags.

I mean what would we do with our stinky trash, after all?


  1. I have to admit that we, under communist rule in Poland, had no plastic bags for trash at all. We had buckets in the under the sink cabinets. The trash was collected in the bucket and then we were carrying it outside to the big communal bins. It was a popular kids’ chore. Plastic trash bags were probably introduced in the 90s, we were not there to observe the fact. I can easily imagine that the plastic bag in the Congo can be a treasure. I regularly give surplus of plastic bags to our cleaner. But not the valuable trash bags that I bring from abroad.


    1. Anna, I love hearing your perspective! I tell you, this was an irritating experience at first, but it’s really got me thinking about our overuse of plastic bags. I will look at them differently from now on!


  2. Hey….are you making fun of the many plastic Disney rain cloaks sitting in my hall closet? Now that you mention it, they do look like trash bags! Where would we be without plastic bags? My lunch bag is full of little sandwich bags to hold my various food items, which would probably seem crazy to the citizens of Congo.

    Regarding those who go through your trash…even here in the States, the common rule is: Once you put anything at the curb, it’s fair game to anyone else who wants it. Including the black bears in our neighborhood who look forward to trash day 🙂


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