Post by Zoe Jenkins from George Washington University
You’ve just arrived in Gaborone (Gabs) and you find yourself gazing out of the taxi window in wonder at the desert landscape and city structures. However, you start to notice the piles of trash that muddle the beautiful scenery. As you travel further and further into Gabs you continue to observe litter scattered on the sides of the road and trapped in drainage ditches.
Unfortunately, seeing litter around Gabs and even at the University of Botswana (UB) is not an uncommon sight. You see orange peels all around the Combi station, water bottles heaped on the way to Kgale Hill, and some taxi drivers just throw wrappers out the window.
There are at least two reasons for this nonchalant attitude regarding garbage. First, there are very few trashcans. There is a systemic (and to an American, annoying) lack of trashcans or garbage receptacles in public spaces. Even in the dorms there is no general trashcan in the communal bathroom. Coming from Washington D.C., where there is a trash can every 100 feet or so, this was culture shock.
Second, is lack of awareness. As evidenced by the taxi driver’s behavior, in general, residents of Gaborone seem to be unconcerned about the negative effects of littering. In addition, the government or UB does not seem to be proactively addressing the lack of education through signs or other methods.
But the tide does seem to be moving, albeit slowly in an environmental direction. In 2007, Botswana enacted a tax on lightweight plastic bags in food and retail entities with the purpose of reducing plastic bag demand. The tax did not require retailers to charge for bags but instead allowed them to pay for the tax as they wished.
In practice, I have noticed many grocery stores have passed the tax onto customers if they elect to use a plastic bag. The cost per bag range is relatively cheap from 20 to 35 thebe (between two and four cents) and a study by Dikgang and Visser reports the tax has resulted in a significant decline in plastic bag usage (Source: Dikgang, Johane and Martine Visser. Behavioral Response to Plastic Bag Legislation. Environment for Development. May 2010. http://www.rff.org/rff/documents/EfD-DP-10-13.pdf). The plastic bag tax surprised me because it is a policy that has only recently gained momentum in US and has opposition in certain parts of the country.
Although the litter on the streets is a big problem, the proactive plastic bag tax shows that Botswana is making an effort to curb poor environmental practices and encourage its citizens to become more sustainable consumers.