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A load of rubbish

Early in my consulting career I was assigned to the south of Sudan to train senior members of the local ministry of agriculture in the mysteries of modern management. This was in the days when Sudan was a single country – the largest in Africa – and between bouts of the fighting that have so debilitated that poor country.

I have warm memories of that trip: of office workers emerging immaculate from mud huts to start their day’s work; of attending a Dinka engagement ceremony in the bush (lots of dancing with spears!); playing duplicate bridge with the expatriate community; and going to a local night club where the hot sound was the Zaire beat.

It is the only project in which I had to take food as well as the usual luggage. The south of Sudan is very poor and we had to spend a lot of effort on day-to-day survival. Water was drawn from the Nile, from which people drank, but also in which they did their washing, and which served as a sewer. We needed to filter the water, then boil it, and then filter it again before we could drink it.

And so now to my theme, which is one of rubbish. On several occasions over the last few months, I have visited our local waste disposal facility; “rubbish dump” does not do justice to this centre, which has carefully labelled skips for different kinds of rubbish – paper, plastics, garden and so on. It is always busy; sometimes there is a queue to get in. By contrast, when in Sudan I managed to get hold of a can of Coke; after I had drunk it, I was going to crush it before throwing it away, but was told to keep it intact as the local children would probably have a use for it.

As you read this piece, take a look around you. Pretty well everything you can see that is man-made will end up as rubbish. In Africa I didn’t see a lot of rubbish (at least where I was); people didn’t have that much to throw away. By contrast we have a lot. But this is not meant to be a piece on a guilt trip arising from this difference of fortune; rather, it is about my realisation that every single thing that is produced by factories around the world, which we then buy, is going to end up as rubbish.

So let’s hear it for recycling, and applause for all those local authorities who encourage it and provide great facilities! And also for all of us citizens who seek to recycle (and again, three cheers for car boot sales and Freecycle). And finally, for whole life design.

So, all being well, this rich generation will not have squandered the resources that our descendants will need to achieve the standards of living that we enjoy.

Calvert Markham

Sunday 11th July 2021
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