Everywhere is rubbish

Last year I was privileged to have visited Angola for two weeks. Travelling around the country made a deep impression on me and changed my view of Angola. Despite extreme poverty, there are bustling cities, beautiful houses and growing churches.

Photo: Ruth Towell/Tearfund

Plastic rubbish

But the one thing that struck me most was the rubbish. Especially plastic rubbish – everywhere. I found it hard to watch the way Christian leaders throw plastic bags and bottles out of cars and buses.

It made me wonder, do they not care for God’s creation? And if they don’t care for creation, do they care for themselves and their neighbourhoods? Their careless actions saddened me. The vast majority of the Angolan population is Christian. How could there be so much rubbish in a country with so many Christians?

But Angola is not unique. What I experienced there is the same throughout Africa – just visit my own city, Pretoria in South Africa, or Nairobi, in Kenya which I often visit. So naturally I am extremely excited about Tearfund’s Rubbish Campaign. It calls on companies to stop selling plastic products in communities where waste is not collected and motivates Christians to reduce their plastic use.

‘As Christians, care for creation is about outworking our God-given mandate, even if the world ignores us!’

Jo Herbert-James

So what can Christians in Africa and elsewhere in the world do about the scourge of plastic rubbish on our streets? Here are six points to consider: 

1. Perhaps we need to change our perspective on God’s creation. Too often creation is seen by Christians as part of the present world that will make way for a new creation – the New Jerusalem, as described in Revelation 21. Why should we care for a world that is temporary? To think like this makes it all too easy to just throw away rubbish without caring about the consequences. But God cares for His created world and gave humanity the responsibility to look after it (Genesis 2:15). If we care for the environment and want to avoid destroying it any further, then we will stop throwing away plastic and other rubbish.  

2. Christians can get into the habit of picking up rubbish wherever they go. This is what I am doing even as I walk down the street. Perhaps you could organise a litter clean-up in your community? Here are some top tips on how to do this from Renew Our World, a global movement of Christians praying, living and campaigning to make the world fair and sustainable. 

3. Christians can create awareness of the damage rubbish and plastic waste cause to the environment and the health of people. Uncollected rubbish is a health hazard and when burned, as it often is in poorer communities, it releases dangerous toxins into the air. Plastic bags can clog drainage systems and create breeding pools for malaria-carrying mosquitoes. We must throw our rubbish away responsibly where we are able to and encourage others to do the same. Ideally, this means in bags and bins that will be taken away to safe processing plants, but in many countries this sort of infrastructure doesn’t exist. 

4. Christians can reduce their own plastic – by using reusable bags for grocery shopping, for example. Following Rwanda’s lead in 2008, many African countries have implemented bans on single-use plastic bags. In fact, Rwanda is aiming to be the world’s first plastic-free country. 

5. Christians can read, share and distribute Footsteps magazine on waste to stimulate action in their churches and groups around rubbish. 

6. Christians believe in the parable of the mustard seed – that small acts of faith can have a big impact. You can lobby large companies such as Unilever and PepsiCo mentioned in the Rubbish Campaign to ‘stop being rubbish’ and take responsibility for their plastic waste.  

As I was working on this blog, my colleague Jo Herbert-James sent me a message. It neatly summarises my call to Christians:  

‘I ran a seminar yesterday called ‘Plastic Planet’, where I invited the church to expand its understanding of discipleship and what it means to bear witness to Christ in this world. My mindless use of single-use plastic may not make much difference to the behaviour of big companies – although I'd still argue if enough of us change, it will – but it does make a difference to my relationship with God. As Christians, care for creation is about outworking our God-given mandate, even if the world ignores us!’ 

Readers, let us adopt this statement and agree to tackle our rubbish problem.