Collecting plastic, glass, and paper from a sand-covered landfill in Gammarth, a suburb of Tunis. Thessa Lageman

Meet the volunteers working to curb the city’s teeming garbage problem.

Mohamed Ben Hassan checks the black bags that have just arrived in a large, dark, one-room building in the Tunis suburb of La Marsa. He looks to make sure that no cans or glass bottles have gotten mixed in with the plastic containers. Ben Hassan, who works as a freelance translator, is one of the volunteers at Tunisie Recyclage, a small NGO that has started recycling garbage in Tunisia’s capital.

“Friends and family ask me, ‘Why do you go to that place?’” he smiles. “They think it is good what I do, but don’t want to get their hands dirty themselves. It’s maybe not glamorous, but I need to do this.”

Tunisie Recyclage was set up by a small group of people in La Marsa and other northern suburbs in the years after the 2011 revolution, which ousted president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali. Like many residents, the founders were fed up with the garbage problem, and with pollution in general. Though Ben Ali had built a Boulevard de l’Environnement in every town, many residents felt that they were just for show; meanwhile, the country was still very polluted.

Only four percent of the garbage in the North African country is recycled, and much of the waste is not collected at all. According to the Regional Solid Waste Exchange of Information and Expertise Network, 80 percent of the trash in urban areas is collected—but that dips down to no more than 10 percent in rural areas.

After the revolution, “it was time to do something instead of just complain about the pollution,” says Tunisie Recyclage’s vice president, Valérie Thomas. Since summer 2012, 1,205 households have registered with them. For $18 per year, the organization comes to pick up their bags once a week. Companies pay 10 times more; around 30 have joined.

Volunteer Mohamed Ben Hassan (left) and driver Noureddine (right) bringing waste inside Tunis Recyclage’s recycling space. (Thessa Lageman)

“People often say, ‘You can sell our waste—why do we need to pay as well?’” Thomas says. “But we don’t make any profit.” Some locals already separate garbage, giving their empty plastic bottles to the berbecha, people who make a living selling the plastic to companies to use for new packages. (Plastic, the most profitable waste in Tunis, can bring in $0.09-$0.34 per kg.) “We don’t want to be a competition for [berbecha], but they open bags and throw bins upside down, and the litter is everywhere on the streets,” Thomas adds.

One Tunisie Recyclage employee collects bags of garbage in an old van, and another works in the recycling building to sort out the haul. In order to expand, they need more volunteers—but finding them isn’t easy. Some locals don’t want to wade through the detritus. Others focus on work above volunteering, and still others would rather be active with a more prestigious NGO. “At the moment, we wouldn’t be able to handle much more waste,” Thomas says. “I wish we could buy another van and employ more people. Our dream is to eventually offer this service to the whole country.”

Tunisians often complain that the country was cleaner before the revolution. But Thomas points out that Tunisia is generating more garbage now, like the rest of the world. After the revolution, waste collectors were on strike for better salaries for about half a year. Even now, there are still plastic bags from that time clogging the streets and the fields; new ones get added all the time, too. Recently, the German Ambassador to Tunisia also complained about the garbage problem in the country.

One problem is that there aren’t central places in neighborhoods for people to drop off their litter, Thomas says. “If the municipality tries to determine a location, the people who live next to it protest,” she adds. “Nobody wants it next to their house.”

Trash and recycling containers designed by Lassard Zouari. (Thessa Lageman)

Lassaad Zouari thinks he’s found a solution. On the other side of Tunis, the artist and businessman shows off the colorful waste containers he recently designed. In his containers, there is a space for general waste, as well as a separate compartment for plastic; people who want to sell bottles can open it and remove them. Across the country, 100 containers are already in use, and municipalities have ordered 100 more. Zouari says he wishes the government would do more to educate residents about waste. To bridge the gap, employees are stationed near the containers for a week after installation, offering instructions for how to use them well. Still, the containers sometimes overflow, spilling out on to the street.

Anti-waste initiatives are growing across the country. The mobile app We Clean maps littered locations and organizes cleanup days. The members of SOS Biaa, another environmental NGO set up after the revolution, raise awareness about pollution via social media campaigns focusing on pollution (for example, that created by landfills with inadequate treatment capacities).

Back at Tunisie Recyclage’s recycling space, the volunteers explain they think it’s best to focus on environmental education for kids because it’s hard to change adults’ habits. Pupils from poor families get the chance to join Tunisie Recyclage and separate their garbage for free, thanks to a donation by the Australian Embassy.

“We might only make a small impact, but it’s a start,” says Ben Hassan, carrying a box of empty wine bottles. “If we don’t do anything, we don’t know where all of these packages end up.”

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