28 Jun Recycling in Gabon Guest Blog
Trash Talk with Innovate ME Intern, Lauren Roy
Gabon is home to a spectacular array of wildlife and large swathes of tropical forest. Buzzwords like “Eden-like,” “unexplored,” and “unspoiled” can be found in most travel guides about the country. As you can imagine, the opportunity to work for WWF in such a location is incredible. WWF is perhaps the most well-known wildlife conservation organization globally, and I look forward to sharing some more about the projects being run by the WWF team in Gabon in the coming months. But conservation isn’t just tracking down elephant poachers and protecting forests from logging, it’s about preventing unnecessary waste. At work I’ve been thinking about and working on topics related to nature conservation, but in my day-to-day life in Libreville, I’ve found myself thinking a lot more about the slightly less glamorous side of conservation.
On our first day in Gabon we got a ride to work and took a wrap-around route to avoid the daily traffic jams on the main coastal boulevard. As we rounded one corner, the car had to pull out into the centre of the road in order to avoid a mound of garbage. Small plastic garbage bags and empty water bottles took up the space of several cars, spilling from the sidewalk into the street. We were in a busy neighbourhood and the garbage pile sat between businesses and homes. As we passed by a young man launched another bag onto the mound, causing the birds pecking away at the garbage to scatter momentarily before settling back to scavenge some more. On our 20 minute drive to work, we passed several more of these mounds, each causing a slight slow down in traffic so that cars could pass in each direction.
The trash mounds were not impromptu garbage dumps; it turned out that buried beneath them were sturdy metal bins designated for garbage collection. Libreville’s population has burgeoned in recent years and it has been difficult to keep up with the growing population. Community members speculate that, although the government is trying to diversify the economy, with the recent decline in oil prices some public services have taken a hit. Lacking funds to update aging infrastructures, the water quality and availability has also declined. Some people I have spoken to explained that although they used to drink the tap water, their families now rely on bottled water. This further exacerbates the issue as all these water bottles often head to the landfill as well.
As I started to get accustomed to the sights, sounds and smells of Libreville, the waste was something I kept noticing. The small mangrove we pass over on the way to the grocery store is choked with litter and plastic bags and bottles are strewn about in the gutters. Coming face to face with all the trash made me start thinking about all the garbage I was producing. I’ve since come to realize that at home our garbage is kept out of sight, out of mind. Waste management is rarely discussed and most people probably don’t know what happens to their trash once the garbage truck passes by their house. This has become evident in Canada as cities across the country are struggling to find a destination for their recycling materials.
While I do purchase more plastic water bottles and receive more single-use shopping bags here that I would at home, I actually produce much less waste. Although the lady at the fruit stand does insist on giving me a plastic bag every time I make a purchase, none of her fruit is wrapped in plastic or sitting on Styrofoam platters; and she sells fruit that would be tossed by Canadian supermarkets for being too battered, bruised or ripe. Also, without a regular recycling program, locals have gotten creative and packaged products in reused and recycled containers. We have already amassed a small collection of jars that the homemade banana chips (which are delicious and addictive!) from the fruit stand around the corner are sold in. Colourful local juices and drinks sold throughout the city also repurpose old water bottles. Most importantly, the community recognizes that trash collection is an issue that they can help improve and are motivated to change their habits and behaviours.
Most of us recognize the importance of protecting endangered species and pristine ecosystems, even though we may never see them. But coming face to face with a whole lot of garbage has reminded me that conservation needs to start in our everyday lives. Until next time, I’ll busy working on figuring out how to help by repurposing my empty plastic water bottles!
Lauren Roy is one of YCI’s first Innovate ME interns and a Masters student in Environmental Policy at Sciences Po. She holds a Bachelor of Arts and Science from McGill University and is currently working as an intern Policy and Advocacy Advisor with WWF in Gabon to help build a strategic plan to promote biodiversity conservation and sustainable development.
Want to intern overseas, develop your career and make a difference? Apply for YCI’s Innovate ME international youth internship program today.