Keeping cities and the countryside free of litter is not difficult; it simply requires everybody to stop throwing garbage into the street and start treating the places where they walk and drive in the same way they treat their own backyards.
The clean-up campaign launched by President Mnangagwa is slowly having some effect, but those big monthly clean-up drives are still collecting far more litter and rubbish than they should. If attitudes were changing faster then the clean-ups would need to metamorphose into upgrading the environment, everything from cutting grass and planting trees to repairing walls and drainage systems.
It is quite possible in Africa to have a general culture that does not tolerate litter or littering. Namibia for years has taken justifiable pride in its litter-free towns, cities and countryside. As Namibians tell messy tourists from more litter-tolerant societies: “We do not do that here.” As part of that culture it is very easy to get rid of rubbish in Namibia.
Most shops and other businesses have a pavement rubbish bin which is emptied regularly by the local authority. Even lay-bys on the highways have bins and garbage trucks regularly go out into the countryside to empty these.
Rwanda, as part of its programme to modernise and reinvent itself after one of Africa’s most distressing histories, has a switch to a litter-free culture as one element of the major social revolution taking place in that country. And because it is taken seriously it has been largely successful.
As President Paul Kagame noted, throwing litter in bins and sweeping streets does not require foreign aid or large budgets, just a modest change in attitude.
A zero litter environment is easier if there are plenty of street bins with these being kept in repair and emptied regularly. The Presidential initiative has seen more companies chipping in with bins, and the modern design of a medium drum swung between two pillars is a considerable advance on earlier models, being easier to maintain and empty.
But you do not have to walk far in Harare to find wrecked bins of earlier attempts, to find a set of pillars missing their bin, which has been vandalised, stolen or just worn out, or to find a bin that is overstuffed with uncollected garbage. All councils need to work with business owners to build on the new initiative and ensure that there are enough bins.
A mutual arrangement might well involve the private sector paying for the bins, in return for the advertising rights, but the council ensuring they were emptied frequently at no further cost.
Anyone baulking at this arrangement should consider that trying to do business next to a pavement coated in filthy litter is not attractive to customers and the council needs to remember that emptying large numbers of bins every day is still a lot cheaper than continuously sweeping pavements and unblocking drains.
This leads to the second requirement for a litter-free environment — local authorities collecting rubbish. Everyone living in an urban area, or doing business in an urban area, is told when garbage is collected and asked to have their bags or bins ready.
With some councils, in some areas, those schedules are simply not kept. So bags of rubbish, that are supposed to be collected, for example, early on Thursday morning sit at the edge of the road for days on end, attacked by wandering dogs and sifted by vagrants seeking salvage. By the time the garbage truck arrives half the rubbish is strewn along the street.
Once councils collect rubbish on the scheduled days at the scheduled times then householders and businesses can be asked to upgrade, and use disposable bags in proper bins. Considering how house-proud most Zimbabweans are, this should not be difficult to implement.
Rubbish collection is a basic service, so basic that Zimbabwe’s urban authorities started off as sanitary boards, with the task of ensuring clean water (by protecting wells), disposing of sewage and collecting rubbish. Grading and maintaining roads was the next level up and came later. Keeping residents alive and disease-free was number one on the list.
Along with the provision of facilities we need to change attitudes. Most people are horrified when passers-by chuck litter in their gardens or outside their gates, and rightly so, but they go and do the same to someone else. Drivers in cars usually want very clean cars, so they throw their rubbish out the window. It is simple to keep one of those supermarket bags in a car under the seat and pack the rubbish as it is generated and then dump it in a bin at home.
Pedestrians snacking or drinking as they walk think nothing of carrying the full box and bottle, but bridle at carrying the much lighter empties until they pass a bin. As attitudes change then we should look at coercion for those who refuse to reform. Singapore fines anyone dropping litter rather heavily, not because they want to collect fine money, but because they want no offenders. Local people have changed and visitors respect the polite warnings. And that is another country with ultra-clean streets.
But we should not need coercion. No one in Zimbabwe, even those so poor that they live in shacks, sits with garbage on the floor of their house or broken bottles and empty food containers in their yard. They keep their homes clean. We all need to start treating our roads, pavements and parks the same and even if others still dump litter make our own switch in attitudes.
As we do this eventually most of us stop being messy and the few selfish remnants are a little poorer from fines until they reform.
The Presidential initiative is just a first step, cleaning up the mess we have already made. The second is to stop making the mess. The third is converting that community action to creating a better environment, rather than just ending its destruction.