Why Casablanca’s ‘American Landfill’ Keeps Growing
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.
“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.
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.
“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.
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.