A landfill of nearly 200 acres of trash grows daily and torments residents on the outskirts of Morocco’s largest city. No one knows quite what to do about it.
CASABLANCA—Two flags ripple over a landfill. Underneath these Moroccan banners stands Mira Mribih’s childhood home: a house that withstood the end of French rule in Morocco in the 1950s, the reign of three kings and, eventually, the disappearance of green pastures and Mribih’s village as garbage took over. Her neighborhood was consumed by the 40 million tons of trash known to locals as the “American landfill.” Here, upwards of 900 Moroccans sift through trash in search of plastic, copper, and anything else that can be sold while 14,000 cattle graze on the rotting waste.
The landfill earned its nickname while Ecomed, a Moroccan branch of the American environmental engineering groups Edgeboro International Inc. and Global Environmental Sustainability Inc., was running the aging landfill. Beginning in 2008, Ecomed was in charge of burying the garbage that Casablanca’s 3-million-plus residents discard daily at the site where the primary form of control is a crumbling cement wall.
The city reneged on a promise to provide 82 hectares of land for the creation of a fresh landfill and that land is now being used for private housing across from the dump, according to Abdelah Ait Ouadi, Ecomed’s director of the site. Oaudi says the lack of space forced Ecomed to continue piling 3,500 tons of trash per day onto the old site. Despite Ecomed’s disappointment at what it says were failed promises, it was the city that ended the contract in 2018, six years early, saying that Ecomed did not treat seeping gases and liquids nor did it meet the city's demand to make a sorting center for recyclables.
Ecomed and the government of Casablanca both blame the other for the failure, but what is certain is that with Ecomed's abrupt departure, Casablanca, Morocco’s most populous city and its economic capital, is at a crossroads with its trash. Despite Morocco's much-publicized commitment to protecting the environment, the city still has no standardized system of recycling and the polluting effects of Casablanca’s sprawling, 33-year-old landfill remain un-contained.
Since 2010, when the city first promised to close the landfill, the situation has only worsened. Thousands of residents remain outside the dump's walls, they have lost water reservoirs due to poisonous drainage and many thousands more in the greater area breathe the polluted air.
"Trash juice": the problem of uncontrolled waste
The trash came to Mediouna—a town in the Casablanca-Settat region of Morocco with a population of more than 14,000—in 1986. Locals there had been throwing away their waste in the pits left from quarry mining, says Mribih. Now 63, Mribih says that the trash started to come from the city of Casablanca, when she was in her early 30s. “The first time the trucks came, they dumped the trash near us," Mribih recalls. "I was crying. I was crying because of the smell. Even the food stopped tasting good.” Within a matter of years, the neighborhood disappeared, replaced by a mountain of trash.
Mribih and her family are unique for being the only residents with a permanent home within the landfill's walls. Only some homes in Mediouna have running water, and only since five years ago. Mribih’s home doesn’t have it, she says, because the landfill has made it inaccessible to water pipelines. The family must walk to gather water that has not been contaminated by the drainage of the dump. When the landfill locked its gates in 2014 collecting water became difficult, so the family decided to hammer open a doorway in the dump’s walls.
While Mribih’s house is the only one officially inside the landfill's walls, apartment complexes continue to creep towards the outside perimeter. These households face the same challenges with water as Mribih’s according to Dr. Abdelghani El Asli, a professor of biology who specializes in bioenergy at the Al Akhawayn University in Ifran, Morocco.
In a single day, the Mediouna landfill leaks about 70 cubic meters of leachate, a toxic liquid that waste experts sometimes call “trash juice,” according to El Asli.
El Asli says that due to the lack of control of the Mediouna landfill, the basin of the dump is saturated and contaminates local water supplies. But the effect does not end there. “Pollution goes global,” El Asli says. When water is polluted in systems near landfills, the effects can ripple as far as 200 kilometers, he explains. The methane spewing from the dump, he says, has a larger reach, contributing to the greenhouse effect.
Aware of the drastic effects of the dump, Casablanca opened up a call for submissions from companies across the world to find a solution to its waste problem in October 2018. They received 11 responses with the top contenders calling for the creation of an incineration plant. Even if a plan is selected by the October 2019 deadline, Faissel Chraibi, then Casablanca commune's head of cleanliness who was once in charge of the Mediouna landfill, predicts that construction and further preliminary work could take another two to three years.
Chraibi says he sympathizes with those whose villages predate the arrival of the landfill and who do not trust the city's promises to control the dump. "They are perfectly reasonable because there are many things that are not well at the landfill. Children are sick. People are sick; they are poor," Chraibi said.
Recycling, Moroccan style
One of those suffering, Dalil Elkhair Elkhattab, slipped his mustard-yellow notebook full of equations into a slot in the wall, a rough affair made of rocks and books. A plastic roof draped over the walls has sheltered Elkhattab since fires inside the Mediouna landfill burned down his previous home half a year ago. With his other hand, he scratched his cat. This cat and the two others licking the leftovers of Elkhattab's breakfast are called X, Y and Z—algebraic unknowns. “I didn’t give them names because they suffer like me,” Elkhattab says in Arabic.
Every morning, he and the dozen others who live in the field outside the landfill walls walk 15 minutes across a rocky pasture to the edge of the smoldering mound of trash, hop across a river of black trash juice and set to work. Elkhattab, 43, is one of the roughly 900 people who earn a living by searching for recyclable materials in Casablanca's landfill. In recent months, he says he has been reduced to working as few as two hours a day after gasses escaping a pile of trash irritated his eyes. Now Elkhattab says he is concerned about the damage the fumes can inflict to his lungs.
Because Morocco has had no standardized system of recycling, the dangerous work of raking through trash to find reusable material is done by hand, illegally and often at night, by pickers who live near or in landfills. There are few available jobs near the landfill and Elkhattab says he has seen 12- and 14-year-olds working as pickers to help their parents.
"A huge folly": the cost of incineration
Less than 10 kilometers away, families play golf and take their kids to an American academy with a puma mascot emblazoned on its walls. These are the residents of the Casa Green Town, a community living in white-walled villas that has put pressure on the city to tamp down the smell emanating from the dump.
The current landfill spans 70 hectares (about 172 acres). According to Chraibi, a new site half that size will branch off from the original. About one-third of that land will be used for continued burying of trash; the other two-thirds will likely be used for the construction of an incineration facility. "It's a big project, it's a very big project. We cannot say now incineration is going to succeed, I'm not certain myself," says Chraibi, explaining that studies and proper construction are key to successfully preparing for incineration.
However, Chraibi is confident that Morocco is working to create a better relationship with waste. Even if Casablanca has not been as successful as Marrakech and Fes—both of which generate power from their waste—the messiness of the situation, he says, provides an opportunity for people to reflect on their practices.
Samir Abderrafi, the President of the Association of Earth, Life and Sciences Teachers (AESVT) and professor of earth sciences in Mohammedia, says in French that constructing an incinerator would be "a huge folly." First, Abderrafi explains that building an incinerator that matches European standards is a massive expense. Casablanca, he fears, does not have the financial resources to build an incinerator to European standards, which reduces the production and release of polluting gases, not simply removing odors.
Instead of making the smell go away to put trash out of peoples' minds, Abderrafi calls for people to confront their habits surrounding waste. "We want to change the perception of trash—the way people look at trash. People consider trash to be waste, that it is dirty, that it must be gotten rid of. We realize that trash is a resource," he says.
Companies across Morocco are just beginning to create formal sorting centers that process trash. Ecomed, for example, created the nation's largest sorting center in Marrakech and has contracts in seven other cities. (Ecomed failed to create the promised sorting site in Casablanca, Ait Ouadi says, because of the constant hindrances caused by the thousands of cattle and people roaming the site, hindrances he says the city promised to remove.)
While Casablanca officials try to steer towards a better future in which trash is a resource instead of a threat, locals are convinced that the memory of the Mediouna landfill will live on. For locals nearby, its nickname from the Ecomed years stays as a grim reminder of the consequences of bad planning and handling of waste: "Whoever comes to manage it, it will always be named that way: American trash" says Elkhattab.
Chris Dillon produced this story in association with The Round Earth Media program of the International Women's Media Foundation. Morad El Bahloul contributed reporting.