Foodways: Cultural Issues Pertaining to Litter

(photos by S. B.)

I recently heard a lecture by Dr. Sean Smith about Pro-Nature/ Anti-Litter Environmental Discourses in Oman which led me to reflect on cultural understandings relating to litter in Dhofar.

Three issues come to the forefront for me: hierarchies of need, time and the re-use of materials. It’s also important to think about creating research that opens up discussions about blame and the role of people hired to pick up trash.

First, I want to give a short example of how “litter” can be conceived in different contexts. Last summer, I was walking around Boston with a cup of coffee. When I had drunk as much as I wanted and decided to toss the cup, I realized that I felt compelled to put my leftover coffee into the ground. Putting a liquid into a trash can felt like “littering” to me.

I hadn’t known before how much I had internalized this aspect of Dhofari culture. If one is inside a building, liquids stay in the bottle/ can/ cup and get tossed away, but if one is outside, then you empty the liquid into the earth (or in the ocean if you are in a boat) before putting the container in the trashcan. This means less weight in trash bags and less chance of spilled liquids, but to me there is also an intangible sense that you should put liquids back into the earth. Sometimes there is a more prosaic reason; while camping, you pour leftover liquids onto a fire to stop the wood from burning so you can use the wood later or to leave useable wood for someone else.

So I stood on the Boston sidewalk and looked around for an area without cement to pour my coffee. I finally found a small piece of ground next to a tree but it was very dry and hard-packed; as I poured, some coffee splashed back up and stained the hem of my skirt, the rest flowed off the dirt and onto the sidewalk. Hmmm. A research moment indeed – I was used to pouring liquid into forgiving sand.

Below are some cultural understandings of litter/ waste in Dhofar.

Hierarchies of Need

1 – making recyclable trash convenient to take is more important than maintaining clean areas by dumpsters

If someone saw me put a bag of aluminum soda cans next to a dumpster, they might think I was being lazy but several years ago a company started to pay for empty/ used cans so expat workers started to collect them. To help in this effort (and to save people from the indignity of having to get into a dumpster) Dhofaris often put empty cans next to, not inside of, dumpsters. So I collect my soda cans in my kitchen and, when I have a bag-full, I set it close to the dumpster.

At picnic sites, Dhofaris often separate cans from other trash, sometimes leaving them in a small pile by dumpsters or leaving trash in closed (knotted) plastic bags with the aluminum cans in heap nearby.

Some people, including myself, do the same with cardboard boxes. Boxes are flattened and set near dumpsters either for people to take and sell to the recycling company, or for people to take, tear into pieces and feed to goats.

2 – leaving food in a way that is palatable for animals is more important that picking up all food containers

In general, Dhofaris try very hard not to waste food. On picnics, leftovers might be carefully packaged and given to other people (even strangers) who are sitting nearby or expat workers, such as gas station attendants. If people are sitting far from others and/ or will be returning home late, extra food is usually set out for animals.

If there are clean-swept, flat rocks nearby, the food is placed there. If not, the food is placed on a piece of plastic or in a flimsy metal container. Even members of my research group, who pick up every piece of litter before leaving, will leave the food container so that wild animals (foxes, stray cats and dogs, seagulls by beaches, etc.) will have “clean” food. To set food on sandy ground is seen as not just unkind but wasteful as the food will not be eaten.

3 – taking food in a way that makes it easy to give to other people (usually strangers) is more important than not having a single-use container

It is normal in some cultures to bring glass containers to restaurants, so that leftovers can be taken home without using additional packaging. But Dhofaris do not often eat “old” food, leftover food from restaurants is either left on the table or set into foil or plastic containers and put into a plastic or paper bag which is then handed over to an expat laborer.

Time

It took me awhile to understand that during a picnic or camping trip, litter has a time component. The men in my research group will toss bottles and cans behind them (away from the campfire) or towards periphery of the living area as we talk and eat. My attempts to stop this behavior was met with firm disapproval. “Let the people take their rest,” I was told.

At the end of the evening, when the men get up and start to put belongings into their cars, one or more of them (without discussion) will do clean-up duty, pouring liquids into the earth, putting all the trash into bags and setting aside aluminum cans. So now I do the same, flinging soda cans with abandon during dinner and assiduously picking up everything later.  

If a person came in the middle of dinner/ the camping trip and saw the mess at the outskirts of where we were sitting, they might do an internal condemnation such as I used to do. Yet, in over 17 years of picnics and camping, I have never seen any Dhofari leave litter at a picnic or camping site.

Reusing

From what I have seen, only two items (aluminum cans and cardboard boxes) are collected to be sold back to a recycling company, but two other items are put to new uses: glass containers with metal screw-tops and plastic laundry soap/ cleaning fluid jugs.

Both small and large glass containers are cleaned and reused. Small glass jars bottles (with the previous label removed) are used for storing bukhoor, small pieces of wood perfumed with aromatic oils.

Large glass bottles, such as Vimto bottles, are used for honey from local hives. That size container is a standard measurement and giving honey is a smaller container would be seen as being cheap.

The large plastic jugs for laundry soap/ cleaning fluid/ automobile oil are used by fishermen to mark their fish traps. The containers are large and brightly colored (thus, can be seen from a distance), cheap, sea-worthy, long-lasting and buoyant. Several are tired to a rope attached to a fish trap which is resting on the seabed. The colors of the jugs and the way they are tired are distinctive for each fisherman so he can easily find his own traps.

[This brings up a topic I will discuss in a later essay: replacing plastics means reflecting on all the ways that item is used. For example, banning plastic laundry soap jugs would cause hardship for fishermen. One alternative might be incorporating an environmentally practical alternative in conjunction with meeting the needs of the community, such as requiring stores to carry only biodegradable laundry soap pods sold in cardboard boxes and making free, colored buoys available to all fishermen.]

Importance of Multi-faceted Research – Issue of  Blaming Tourists

The presentation quoted someone who made fun of the “blame the tourist” excuse for litter on Omani beaches/ scenic places but I have never seen a Dhofari who owned or was related to someone who owned herd animals (camels, cows, goats) leave litter after a picnic or camping. Nor have I ever seen a fisherman toss anything plastic into the ocean as “it will stay too long time.” The people who live here and are connected to animal husbandry or fishing are aware that litter will kill animals/ hurt the environment that they count on for their livelihood.

Importance of Multi-faceted Research – Issue of Cleaners

The presentation also quoted someone who suggested that the government should stop paying for workers to clean the beaches as a way to teach people to pick up after themselves.

My take on this point of view is that there is no one alive who thinks littering is a good idea. People don’t litter because they are unaware that it’s wrong, they do it because they are lazy. If such are people are confronted with a beach full of trash, they will simply find another beach and destroy that one.

And given the prevalent “don’t interfere with other people” mentality in Oman, having people police each other is not going to work. [The one scenario that might be effective is if one or more older men talked to a group of young men, but that would require the older men arriving at exactly the right time, the ages to be clear (young men would not shame older men) and for there to be no women as in Dhofar, a man will not approach a group with women he doesn’t know unless there is an emergency.]  

In Dhofar, the men who clean beaches are incorporated into systems of giving. As I mentioned above, the men in my research group will always separate out empty aluminum cans for the cleaners to sell to the recycling company; half-empty jugs of water and extra containers of drinks will also be left. Also, if staying in a shelter, Dhofaris often leave extra foodstuffs, such as vegetables and fruit, tied up to the rafters of shelters for anyone to take.

Thus there is a mutually symbiotic relationship. The picnickers/ campers can leave their trash in an organized manner (in the dumpster or in tied plastic bags) so that they don’t need to carry it home and they can leave any leftover goods knowing that they will be used. Cleaners are paid for their work and are often able to take away foodstuffs that might be eaten or sold.

sb - beach 2