The second life of litter

By Coco McCabe

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It's Ramadan, the Muslim holy month when neither food nor drink passes the lips of believers from sunup to sundown. And, in a way, it's because of Ramadan that I learn about recycling in the sun-baked emptiness of North Darfur where there is so little that goes to waste.

In the camps where people driven from their homes now live, they make shelters from any scraps they can find: cardboard, strips of cloth, frayed pieces of plastic. In the streets of El Fasher, the capital of North Darfur, goats nose through the slim pickings in the trash pits outside the homes, but there is little in them. Everything here seems to get used, and reused. In the market, shopkeepers wrap the produce in artfully folded bags they make from old newspapers. Tin cans morph into pitchers.

On this morning, we have been bouncing along in a Land Cruiser on the long and dusty road to Tawila, where Oxfam has been building latrines and bathing shelters at nearby Dalih camp. Mindful of the rules of this holy month, I have been trying not to take swigs from my water bottle, at least not in public. I'm parched, so when we make a brief stop at the Oxfam guesthouse I sneak a sip before climbing back into the truck—still thirsty.

Just then, an aid worker opens the door and quickly passes through a bag. Inside are four bottles of Pepsi, miraculously cold and beaded with condensation: one for each of us Westerners.

"As I said, American imperialism at work," crows one of my colleagues, twisting off the top and swallowing his drink with pure pleasure as the Land Cruiser lurches off again.

It's good. So good. Pepsi never tastes like this at home—not when you can have it whenever you want. Here, at high noon during Ramadan, it's illicit, and I savor it even more because of that-not knowing the best is yet to come.

When we finish our drinks, someone unrolls the window and, with a heave, sends one of the empty bottles flying out. To my surprise, another goes, and another.

I'm the only one left clutching a bottle, and I intend to hang on to it: How could they be trashing the place so wantonly? It's dusty and empty out there, but that's no reason to muck it up with sticky plastic bottles.

Go ahead, urge my colleagues. Toss it. It's not trash. The bottles are like treasure for the kids. They love them.

Treasure? I think of the photo I saw recently of boys in one of the camps playing with a small toy truck they had made from found parts. I remember hearing that other children save bits of plastic twine they find and weave them into jump ropes.

I unroll my window and wrestle for a second more with my own political correctness. Then, with the thrill of doing something wrong that is now suddenly right, I let go of the bottle. I have littered! Or have I recycled?

It's the latter, I'm quite sure.

"This is a bonanza to them to have these plastic bottles," explains Sally Field somewhat later. She is a public-health promoter working out of Oxfam's El Fasher office. In the courtyard near the kitchen at the office lies a heap of used plastic water bottles. I wondered at first why they were left there. Now, I understand, they have a destination—a very useful second life.

The ones the kids don't use to tote their water around in will wind up in the local market where shopkeepers fill them with the juice they squeeze and sell, says Field.

"The bottles are sacred," she adds.

"The kids come knocking on our door asking for them. They play with them," says Leslie Morris, an Oxfam staffer working on hygiene promotion in the town of Kebkabiya. "I like how they recycle things here. The last time I was in El Fasher I brought back as many of those pop bottles as I could."

Morris plans to adapt the bottles for use in the hand-washing program she is promoting. She'll punch small holes in the tops so the water can dribble out like a portable faucet.

Now that I'm tuned in, I begin to see the precious bottles everywhere: tucked under a child's arm for safekeeping, attached to a bit of wire for a toy, a circle of them planted in the hard earth as a colorful garden surround.

Knowing about the underground life of plastic bottles makes that Pepsi even sweeter—and maybe less illicit—than it was during Ramadan.