Monday, April 7, 2008

Looking for Cultural Universals

Unfortunately, I may have found one.

It's funny how one can make cross-cultural connections sometimes. A friend of mine is from Ghana (in West Africa), where he spent a good deal of his childhood. We were talking about the problems Ghana was having with a special kind of litter: Clear plastic bags used primarily for drinking water, known as "pure water sachets."

Solving One Problem Creates Another

In Ghana (and many parts of Africa), the public water system provides water that is safe for washing clothes, etc., but is not so great for drinking. The solution? Make clean drinking water readily available in convenient plastic bags. So for years now, nearly everyone has been able to get clean, pure water to drink. I know you see the downside coming: The discarded plastic bags are everywhere. Pure water sachets fill the sidewalks, the gutters, the streets. They clog drains, canals, and lakes.

At the root: Common Behavior

The problem is exacerbated by a cultural norm in Ghana: People drop their trash wherever they are (this is very similar to the way my teenage children take off their shoes, jackets, and clothes... they drop wherever they happen to be, and quickly form a think layer covering their bedroom floors). It is commonplace to just drop the wrappers from food, paper, unfinished food itself, and of course plastic, right on the sidewalk or street.

Government efforts have been underway in western Africa for years now to deal with the problem, but have been mostly ineffectual. NGOs have gotten involved, and private groups are attempting to apply free market approaches (such as making tote bags out of collected sachets). recently, the Association of Table Water Producers in Nigeria staged a self-imposed, one-week stoppage in the production of pure water sachets, with limited results.

The Random Connection

I've been pretty obsessed with learning more about Cambodia lately, and I stumbled onto a delightful podcast by an American currently living in Siem Reap: Tasty Dog in the Kingdom (you'll need to listen to her podcast #1 to learn the meaning behind the name). during podcast #12, Delilah Marie (a pseudonym) described the trash system in Cambodia: People throw trash on the ground anywhere and everywhere, and it is almost never picked up. She also addresses the ubiquitous plastic bag, used to carry and drink fresh water (sound familiar?), coffee, and a variety of food items. These bags clog irrigation canals, and are piled along every road and path.

So it seems that the people of Siem Reap, 11,537 kilometers away from Ghana, have nearly identical behaviors when it comes to dealing with trash. Questionable water from the public system has also resulted in the distribution of drinking water in plastic sachets, just as in western Africa. I was even more surprised to dig a little on Google and discover that entrepreneurs in Cambodia are also converting the plastic bags into fashion as a way to deal with the problem.


Well, there is no conclusion, really. I have barely begun to scratch the surface on this issue, and it is clear that I (and many of us) have been ignorant of the scope of the trash control problems around the world. I found a website dedicated to abandoned and orphaned children which relates anecdotal examples of families and orphaned children living in garbage dumps around the world. I plan to post more on this topic soon.


  1. Hi Paul,

    Interesting post, and very recognizable (I do fieldwork in Ghana). The taste of the water in these sachets is good, if a little chlorine. I never know what to do when I finish a sachet — and when I ask people, they shrug their shoulders and say, 'why, you drop it right here on the street of course'...

    I have been thinking a lot about this problem. One of the underlying reasons, I think, is that plastic packagings have 'taken Ghana by surprise' so to say. As a packacking material, plastic it did not evolve locally and consequently no local procedures for waste management exist. Add to this the fact that indigenous packagings and containers (bags, woven baskets, and calabashes) are all made from organic material and hence biodegradable, and it is easy to see how revolutionary wrappings can cause an unprecedented heap of litter in a very short stretch of time.