Plastic paradise: why recycling and clean fuel can raise the stakes in Mali

Hello again, from sunny Bamako, where the temperature is going up just as mangos are tumbling from the trees.  It’s getting hot here and the temperature is going to keep climbing, till it busts 50 degrees Celsius: that, ladies and gentlemen who are not from the US, is 120 degrees fahrenheit. Hot enough to fry eggs on the pavement, if you really want to.

I live in Bamako and have recently moved house, to a small, lovely villa surrounded by palm trees, and a small swimming pool: I call it a swimming bath because two strokes and you’re done. But, I do recognise having a private pool for the first time in my life places me right in the whiff of wealth category. We Western professional ex-pats are amongst the most privileged people, not just in Mali, but the world. I have a house-keeper too, and a gardener and a driver: all blatant symbols of wealth in a country where GDP per capita stands at US$720 a year. Mali is currently considered one of the five least developed nations on earth – 70% of families depend on farming for their livelihood, it has one of the fastest growing populations in the world, and Bamako is a very expensive capital city. All this is a contradiction that sits hard with me, which is probably why I’m writing about it now.

So, to recycling. I don’t throw out much trash, but there are no recycling facilities in Mali, at all. So all the crap that is thrown out – and there is a lot in this city of some 2 and a half million – gets buried or burnt, and, especially the toxic stuff, literally goes up in smoke. Poisonous smoke. The black plastic bags that litter the streets and quartiers, the canals of stinking raw sewage and the rotting food-stuffs fugg the air and taint the water people drink. Many Bamako quartiers have communal gardens, where people grow, and sell, salad. They water it with water straight from the canals, or the River Niger, both of which are poisonous with toxins and human waste. I soak my salad in vinegar as recommended, but still get sick if I eat salad from Bamako.  Some Malian friends tell me they refuse to eat salad at all in Bamako because of this.

In addition, the air quality here is infamous. Sometimes the level of pollution in Bamako makes you feel physically nauseous: the noxious mix of burning plastic, coal, wood and car fumes. One investigative report I urge you each to read is ‘Dirty Diesel” by Switzerland based Public Eye. They expose the cauldrons of African quality fuels” brewed up in Rotterdam, Amsterdam and Antwerp, and traded by, amongst others, two Swiss trading companies – VITOL and TRANSFIGURA – who dominate exports of many petroleum products exports Europe to West African countries. To quote directly from this brilliant report, “About 90 percent of the diesel exported to West Africa from the ports of Amsterdam, Rotterdam and Antwerp has sulphur content at least 100 times above the European standard.” This is what we are breathing here in Bamako. And in Ghana and Nigeria and Cote d’Ivoire and Senegal, and over east in Zambia.

Eating toxic food and breathing toxic air is a devastating combination. When I leave Bamako, for the Malian cities of Ségou, Mopti or Timbuktu, I immediately feel the difference: my lungs don’t hurt and I don’t wheeze. But this is not only a huge public health issue: living amidst poisonous toxins is bad for the soul, and development on all levels. Walking through Bamako quartiers like Torokorobougou, where I was living until a couple of weeks ago, you can feel something has been lost. People have become used to filthy streets awash with dry and wet waste. Mali needs recycling alternatives, to clean the public water, and land, and the spaces where people are growing food to eat: and it needs support to demand corporations don’t continue to have a free, and very profitable, license sell filthy fuel to African countries when they could not sell such degraded products on such a large scale in most of Europe.

The Mali government of Ibrahim Boubacar Keita is, generally weak, sometimes utterly incompetent, and struggling to control the flow of arms, drugs, and people, from Mauritania through Mali to Algeria and northwards to the Libyan border. It has many other priorities, like controlling the threat of terrorism and increasing violent conflict, plus cleaning up its image, rather than its environment. But. Malians are dignified, educated people who deserve better than living amidst their own waste. Having some control over your own waste management offers people a sense of control over other parts of their lives, the lives of their kids, and a sense of collective pride through communal actions that can help to resolve other festering conflicts.









  1. Rebecca Ehrich says

    Hello good friend! I love your posts from Mali. We are a similar trajectory, via time travel. I lived in beautiful (albeit HOT) Mali for 4 years in the 1980’s. And, met you in COLD Mongolia in the 90’s.
    I love your journalism. Keep on keepin’ it real.
    Love always,
    Rebecca Ehrich
    (Former Peace Corps Medical Officer/Mongolia and Mali

Leave a Reply to Rebecca Ehrich Cancel reply


This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.