By Hazel Unger
By Hazel Unger
Casablanca – You may have noticed them in your peripheries; bulky unwieldy carts with jerry-rigged walls, threatening to topple over under towering piles of plastic containers and cardboard.
Often unseen but ever-present, the men that pull these carts are called “mikhala” or “boara,” meaning waste pickers in Moroccan Arabic, make up the sprawling network of Morocco’s informal trash collection. Municipal waste in Casablanca goes from kitchen trash cans straight to landfills, unless the material is recyclable in which case it is picked up by a waste picker who subsequently sells it to a recycling company.
Morocco, like many developing countries, has a lack of recycling infrastructure, which results in all municipal waste going straight to landfills. The waste and pollution problems in Morocco cannot be understated; Morocco is the second highest consumer of plastics in the world, second only to the United States according to Moroccan news site Yalbiladi. The waste pickers that are part of the wave of rural migration to big cities like Casablanca, often unable to find work, have crafted a niche market in recycling the enormous amount of trash.
The waste pickers are a deeply imperfect solution, yet they fill a void in Morocco’s trash infrastructure and provide an invaluable service to Moroccan citizens. This value however, is hampered by Moroccan society’s negative opinions of the trash pickers; they see the work of the waste pickers as an eyesore and nuisance in the city. Ostracized by Moroccan society, the waste pickers live on the fringes and are relegated to the lowest of societal rungs. This brings us to the start of the Pimp My Carroça Project.
Pimp my Carroça project began when the Community Service Club students at the American Language Center in Casablanca watched a TED talk video called “Pimp my Carroça” on the lack of a recycling infrastructure and the plight of the waste pickers in Sao Paulo, Brazil. They immediately were drawn to the stark similarities between Morocco and Brazil’s trash collection problems.
The project, started by a graffiti artist named Mudano, aims to draw attention to the waste pickers by spray-painting their carts or carroças with environmental graffiti messages, improving the working conditions by handing out safety clothes, and giving free health checks. The students, seeing the trash problems in their own neighborhoods as well as the difficult lives of the waste pickers, knew that this project had to be implemented in Casablanca.
From the beginning, the students recognized that this type of project would only be successful if built on a trusting relationship with the waste pickers. After many attempts, they finally found a waste picker named Yassine who trusted our group and was enthusiastic about the project. Meeting with Yassine, we learned that he rented his cart from a landlord and had to give a significant portion of his recycling proceeds to him, so we set out to work to build his own carroça from scratch. Finally, after a month’s work, we fundraised, constructed our own carroça, and brought a local Casablanca graffiti artist to spray paint it with environmental messages in Arabic.
Increasing our connections from Yassine, every other week after our first meeting, we began to graffiti carroças with the Let’s Graff team and other local graffiti artists, and hand out safety clothes to an average of one waste picker per week, while trying to raise awareness about what we were doing. Along with advertising and spreading the word of the project at the ALC Community Service Group Conference, the students also networked at the annual ALC Faceoff event extending the project to other ALC’s around Morocco. The students as well presented their project at the American consulate cultural center and library in Casablanca.
With each carroça and waste picker we worked with, we improved our methods and techniques. We began thinking further about how to interpret the Pimp my Carroça project, in a Moroccan context. Changing people’s entrenched habits, especially when lacking historical contextual patterns and the proper awareness is near impossible. At the end of the day, if we were to help all the Casablanca waste pickers with their carroças, and the struggles of these people became better known, the trash problems and lack of recycling infrastructure would still remain the status quo.
While brainstorming ideas of environmental mindfulness, we came across the book named Green Deen: What Islam Teaches about Protecting the Planet by Ibrahim Abdul-Matin. In the book, Abdul-Matin, referencing the Koran, profoundly states, “The earth is a mosque, and everything in it is sacred.” Matin expounds further by emphasizing that Islam “provides a helpful lens to prompt action among Muslims and anyone else concerned about saving the Earth.”
Matin goes on to state that this lens of living a “Green Deen,” meaning a “green path/religion,” incorporates a range of principles including:
1. Understanding the Oneness of God and his creation (tawhid)
2. Seeing signs of God everywhere (ayat);
3. Being a steward of the Earth (khalifah);
4. Honoring the covenant, or trust, we have with God (amana)
5. Be protectors of the planet; moving toward justice (adl)
6. Living in balance with nature (mizan).
Islam, Matin evokes, at its most elemental, teaches that by respecting the planet you are respecting God and that being a steward of the planet is “is rooted in some core ethical Islamic principles.” Matin goes on to say that “ Living a Green Deen means seeing everything in the natural world as a sign (ayat) of our Creator… To treat the natural world poorly means to deny the signs of our Creator.”
When we litter the earth, dump our trash into the ocean, and pollute the ground, we are in fact denying the very existence of God by denying the signs of God, simultaneously eroding the “moral foundations of the Muslim community”. Living a “Green Deen” means any act of environmental pollution is haram or forbidden, and by definition demands a moral outrage. Imagine the reaction to a Muslim eating outside during Ramadan. This not widely done because it is met with clear social disapproval. Now imagine this same reaction greeting acts of littering. Indignation over religious transgressions needs to be equally strong in the face of environmental crises that Moroccan and other Muslim communities face. Environmental red lines should be viewed with the same reverence as religious red lines.
Going forward with the Pimp my Carroça project, we hope to reach many more waste pickers. Additionally we are working on a spin-off recycling bin project. Inspired yet again by Pimp my Carroça in Sao Paulo, we hope to set up recycling bins by the dumpsters in the neighborhood of the ALC along with a coordinated environmental awareness campaign. This campaign will reach out to the surrounding residents and business owners and explain the project goals, instructing them on why and how to separate recyclable materials. The waste pickers could then pick up recyclables easily from this bin. This would also solve another problem that waste pickers face, having to rummage through dumpsters and sorting through the trash on the street. Contingent on the education campaign’s success, we will expand and set up recycling bins in other parts of the city.
The ultimate objective of Pimp my Carroça in Morocco is to inspire Moroccans to take the time to critically analyze their own consumption patterns and environmental impact. We hope to eventually inspire grassroots movements within other Moroccan communities focused on raising awareness for the work of the waste pickers and lack of a recycling infrastructure. At its heart, we hope to challenge environmental apathy that exists in Morocco and around the world that runs parallel to the fundamental teachings of the Koran.
Abdul-Matin, Ibrahim, and Keith Ellison. Green Deen: What Islam Teaches about Protecting the Planet. San Francisco, CA: Berrett-Koehler, 2010. Print.