The Smell of Burning Trash


We are now a little more than halfway done with this trip/experience/journey. And I can officially say that this is probably the coolest and most eye opening adventure I could have experienced over the course of a month. There are so many amazing things, like the joy of the people we meet, the waves and smiles we receive. Yet at the same time on the same streets we see heartbreaking issues every day.

One issue that cannot be ignored and is blatantly shoved in our face every time we leave the house is the trash, plastic trash. Bags, packages, wrappings, bottles, and every kind of plastic litters the streets everywhere we look. In the months leading up to this trip I have been working with a non-profit organization called the Clean River Alliance. We work to clean up the rivers and streams in the Russian River Watershed. We pick up trash, plastic trash, the kind of trash that kills fish and other organisms in the ocean, in rivers, streams, lakes, and any body of water. In Kenya, there is no trash pickup service. Or apparently there actually is one. But, according to a local I spoke with, the government doesn’t really do it. They don’t announce a day to set the trash out for them to pick up. Also arranging money for trash pickup has been an issue. So essentially no trash is picked up. It litters the streets, and when something is finally done about it, that something is gathering the trash into big piles and then burning it.

The smoke from the plastic stinks, and it was one of the first things I smelled when we landed in Nairobi. But I truly realized the stench and ill effects of the plastic burning smoke when our “garden group” was working next to the neighborhood burn location, cleaning out the trash from the burning hole at the school. We spent the entire day sorting through trash and shoveling it into the bin we have designated as our new burning location. The idea of the bin was that it would contain and channel the smoke more upwards, instead of allowing it to spread everywhere like it usually does. We spent the entire day working hard, but every time we stood up we felt nauseous and dizzy from the smell of the smoke.

The next day and the following days we worked extremely close to the trash and felt nauseous, dizzy, and headachy. Just three days of working in the haze of the smoke had us all feeling unwell. So it is saddening to consider that the Kenyans we speak with, work with, break bread with, and live with have been breathing in the toxic smoke of the burning plastic their entire lives. Their children grow up breathing in the smoke of the garbage, their babies breathe the contaminated air their whole life.

This issue is so fixable and sobering and takes away from the beauty of Kenya evident even through the piles of garbage. This issue – so important to me – is apparently given barely a thought by the people here, where their concerns are more basic: food, water, and basic life necessities. However clean air is a basic life necessity too, and ignoring it does not only affect Kenyans, it affects the entire global community. At the moment I do not know what it would take to fix this issue, only that it needs to be fixed, by Kenyans, the UN, or simply a determined individual. Why? Because this is a global issue. Air is not held in by borders, and trash is not either. 

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