What the World Throws ‘Away’ — an In-depth Look at the Issues Worldwide
By Donna Shaver
In the developed world, most of us have a weekly curbside waste removal service that collects both our garbage and our recycling. We sort our garbage, recyclables and yard debris into the appropriate containers. Trucks come and haul it away to a place we never see. We also have strict regulations on landfills and how hazardous materials such as chemicals, medical waste, and discarded drugs are handled. Regular testing is required to ensure that groundwater is not contaminated. Waste collection is usually handled by local waste collection services, supported by local and state environmental bureaus and volunteer organizations.
In the developing world, regulations are non-existent or not enforced. Landfills grow ever larger, especially near big cities. Garbage and other waste products are also strewn about the city. According to a World Bank report in 2012, some three billion residents generate 1.2kg per day, or 1.3 billion metric tons per year. The materials in the towering mounds of the landfills include garbage, trash, recyclables, toxic chemicals, heavy metals, out-of-date pharmaceuticals, dead batteries, medical waste, animal carcasses, and human and animal excrement. Dogs, cats, rodents, flies, roaches and other animal life carry diseases and compete for edibles.
This accumulation of trash and garbage provides a meager living for millions of people around the world. The people who live off the dumps have been called many things—trash-pickers, scavengers, rag pickers, recyclers, and more. But participants in the First World Conference of Waste Pickers in 2008 chose the term “waste picker” in English to facilitate global communication. Waste pickers, although they provide an essential service, are looked down upon by the larger society no matter where they live.
For most of them, the dump is not only their neighborhood – it is their supermarket, their department store, their restaurant, and their home. Many waste pickers construct and furnish their shelters from materials found in the landfill, and have no electricity or running water. Waste pickers don’t always live in the dump. Some scavenge in the streets, looking through garbage containers and piles of trash in streets and alleys. They may live in slums and shantytowns. Their children are waste pickers at an early age, and seldom have access to education. With no education, the children are doomed to a lifetime as waste pickers.
Landfills in the Developing World
In the developing world, garbage and trash is heaped in piles or placed in whatever containers are available. Garbage trucks pick some of it up, and waste pickers try to beat the trucks to take what can be sold—often scattering trash and garbage on the streets in the process. With the lack of in-home sanitary facilities, human waste is often included in the piles of garbage. Thousands of people, mostly shantytown and slum dwellers, may live within the sight (and smell) of the landfill.
A few facts about some of the largest landfills in the developing world illustrate the scale of the problem:
- Sudokwon Landfill, South Korea. The landfill opened in 1992, and contains 88 million tons of waste. On average it receives 20,000 tons per day.
- Bordo Poniente Landfill, Nezahualcoyotl, Mexico City, Mexico: Before its closure in 2011, it was accepting 12,000 tons of garbage a day. But since there were no plans for another landfill, people continue to dump garbage there, even though the landfill is technically closed.
- Olusosun Lagos Dump, Nigeria: This landfill takes in almost 10,000 tons of solid waste daily and a considerable amount of electronic-waste (e-waste) from the 500 container ships that arrive in Lagos each month. According to Basel Action Network (BAN), the e-waste is equal in volume to 400,000 computer monitors or 175,000 large TV sets. As much as 75 percent of some shipments are classified as e-waste.
- Jardim Gramacho, Rio de Janiero, Brazil: Closed in 2012, it was taking in 9,000 tons a day. About 3,000 waste pickers worked there. (Jardim Gramacho became famous through the film, Waste Land, by artist Vik Muniz.)
It is impossible to know how many people in the world are waste pickers. Estimates vary wildly, and can vary by thousands for a given landfill. A World Bank Group study in 2012, What a Waste, reports more than two million waste pickers worldwide. But a 2010 study estimated that 1.5 million people in India alone were waste pickers, primarily women and people from lower castes. Brazil is the only country that keeps data on waste pickers.
“The children don’t go to school. We can’t afford to spend 100, 200 rupees because then there’ll be nothing left. Books, uniforms cost money.”
Durga, Waste-picker in Ghazipur landfill, New Delhi
Life on the Landfill
While it is fair to say that most waste pickers eke out a meager living at best – one that depends on eating food, wearing clothes and shoes, and using materials found in the landfill – it is only fair to note that in some locations, waste pickers can make significantly more than the minimum wage, particularly in Brazil and Mexico. Men earn much more than women in all age groups. Even in places where waste pickers can exceed the minimum wage, they are on the bottom rung of society – and women are on the bottom rung of waste pickers.
At some of the huge landfills, the waste pickers have created real communities. At Bantar Gebang, Indonesia’s largest landfill, they level fields of trash for ad-hoc volleyball games. They even have a small outdoor cinema with scavenged speakers that show films once a week.
In Asuncion, Paraguay, a local music teacher started a music school in the barrio built on the landfill. Instruments were constructed from the objects found in the landfill.
They have started an orchestra – the subject of a soon-to-be-released film, LandFill Harmonic.
Waste pickers in some areas are formally organizing to use whatever collective power they can, and to make their lives more orderly and cooperative. As the waste pickers strive to turn their way of life into a trade, developing countries are also seeing how they can utilize those skills to reduce the cost of handling waste while mitigating the impact on the environment—from slowing the need for more dump space to protecting groundwater. The partnership between government and waste pickers is of mutual benefit. More value can be reclaimed from recyclables by sorting out items before they reach the landfill and ensuring they are handled appropriately—which means training and support for the worker.
The waste pickers in the landfill at Pune organized in 1993 into a collective called Kagad Kach Patra Kashtakari Panchayat (KKPKP). In 2007, KKPKP worked with the city government to create a cooperative called Solid Waste Collection and Handling (SWaCH). This has worked well to improve recycling and give the waste pickers legitimacy. The Unforgotten, our recipient organization, works with, and complements the work of KKPKP by enabling women who want to leave waste-picking for a better life. Many women get the assistance they need to support the family, and their daughters receive a subsidized education to break the cycle of poverty.
But waste pickers may be the losers when cities understand the value of materials that are routinely discarded. Recycling may be outsourced, and waste pickers may be forced out of the landfills. Organizing is their best chance at being competitive. The World Bank Group states that “the effective integration of waste pickers, particularly in low-income countries, is critical”.
Throughout the developing world, there are few, if any, formal recycling programs. According to Chintan, a waste worker advocacy group in Delhi, waste pickers save the city $30,000 a day, and play a key role in keeping the city clean.
The life of waste pickers is hard, and can have profound physical and emotional consequences. Various studies have been done over the years, and although it is not simple to quantify the health effects, it is clear that the health of waste pickers is seriously compromised by working in the landfills. In addition, many waste pickers are children or women of childbearing age, which puts them at higher risk. In a World Bank Group paper, Occupational and Environmental Health Issues of Solid Waste Management, the health risks from waste are caused by the following factors:
o The nature of raw waste, its composition (e.g., toxic, allergenic and infectious substances), and its components (e.g., gases, dusts, leachates, sharps);
o The nature of waste as it decomposes (e.g., gases, dusts, leachates, particle sizes) and their change in ability to cause a toxic, allergenic or infectious health response;
o The handling of waste (e.g., working in traffic, shoveling, lifting, equipment vibrations, accidents);
o The processing of wastes (e.g., odor, noise, vibration, accidents, air and water emissions, residuals, explosions, fires);
o The disposal of wastes (e.g., odor, noise, vibration, stability of waste piles, air and water emissions, explosions, fires).
The life of a waste picker is difficult and precarious. Being sidelined by injury or illness may well mean having nothing to eat and no resources.
The following is a high level list of the hazards faced daily by a waste picker.
o Lead: Recyclers working in landfills have higher levels of lead in their blood.
o Inhaled Chemicals: Waste pickers are exposed to all manner of chemical solvents, inhaling chemicals released by burning waste and fumes from trucks and other heavy machinery. At the main dumpsite for Manila in the Philippines, out of 974 children, 24 percent had chronic cough, 25 percent were wheezing, and 19 percent had shortness of breath. Decreased lung function and wheezing in children was also documented in Nicaragua. Waste pickers are also exposed to smoke from burning methane from spontaneous fires in piles of trash.
o Toxic Materials: According to the Electronics TakeBack Coalition, the mishandling of electronic devices to obtain valuable metals is highly toxic:
o Breaking open cathode ray tubes with hammers, exposing the toxic phosphor dust inside.
o Cooking circuit boards over open fires to melt the lead solder, breathing in toxic lead fumes.
o Burning wires in open piles to melt away the plastics (to retrieve the copper).
o Burning plastic casings, creating dioxins and furans – highly poisonous fumes.
The lack of environmental regulations – or the lack of enforcement – results in even radioactive material finding its way into landfill. Four people died in Goiania, Brazil in 1987 when they dismantled nuclear medicine equipment discarded from a hospital.
o Infections: Waste pickers are exposed to viruses, fungi, protozoa and bacteria. Mishandling hospital waste can lead to contact with biological pathogens, such as Hepatitis-B, tetanus and HIV. Waste pickers are also subject to bites from dogs and rats.
o Gastrointestinal problems and parasites: Eating “recovered food” can cause nausea, parasitic infections, and acute diarrhea. A study of stool samples on children working in the dump in Manila found that 98 percent had roundworms of one, and often two, species.
Hygiene is a serious problem among waste pickers, especially with little or no access to washing facilities. Women waste pickers in India reported preparing meals immediately after the day’s work without washing.
Waste pickers are exposed to constant smoke and fumes. Ninety-five workers at Bombay dumpsites were surveyed and examined. Based on clinical exams, 80 percent had decreased visual acuity. Most of the workers complained of burning eyes, diminished vision, redness, itching, and watering.
Injuries to the neck, back, shoulders, and arms are associated with work-related lifting. Even in the U.S., there are high rates of these types of injuries for waste collectors. Weights and heights are higher in developing countries, making the potential for injury even greater. Waste picking requires squatting, kneeling, and working and walking on unstable surfaces, all of which put stress on the body.
o Cuts, lacerations, and needle sticks: Many waste pickers don’t wear gloves so that they can better identify materials of value when they dig into the piles of trash. Frequent cuts, needle sticks, and other lacerations can be the result. Without ways to clean and protect wounds, they can easily become infected.
o Heavy equipment: One of the greatest causes of fatalities is working around heavy equipment. Waste pickers rush to trucks to get a first chance at valuable materials. Trucks can run over or back into waste pickers. Bulldozers are constantly leveling trash. The heavy equipment also releases noxious fumes and generates significant noise.
o Dumpsite collapse: Cavities can be caused in huge landfills by underground fires from methane. People fall into the cavities and can be buried by the trash or severely burned.
o Dumpsite slides: Mounds of trash can become unstable if they are too steep. The most famous slide occurred in Payatas, the largest open dump in Metro Manila in the Philippines. In July 2000, a 50-foot wall of trash collapsed, burying hundreds of shanties. The exact loss of life will never be known, but the Quezon City government puts the number at nearly 300.
The Human Cost
Infant Morbidity and Mortality: Children, of course, are affected by all of the hazards noted above. Infants and small children can be quickly overcome by acute diarrhea, and diarrhea is a frequent result of exposure to contaminated food. There are few recent studies readily available, but a 2004 World Bank paper by Sandra Cointreau cited three earlier studies relating to the topic:
o A study of Indian dumpsite waste pickers (no date given) suggested that waste picker children have 2.5 times more potential for illness than non waste-picking children.
o A 1993 study of waste pickers in three cities in India noted that 38 percent of women pickers had lost one child, and 10 percent had lost three or more. The main causes of death were diarrhea, tetanus, smallpox, bronchitis, and viral infections. (Note: Smallpox was eradicated by 1979. Measles may have been misidentified as smallpox.)
o A study in 1981 in Cairo, Egypt, found that infant mortality among waste pickers was 240 deaths per 1,000 live births—compared with only 98 per 1,000 nationally. Major causes were neo-natal tetanus (about 50 percent), diarrhea, respiratory infection, and measles. In 1991 after working conditions were improved, infant mortality was reduced to 117 per 1,000.
Malnutrition and the health problems associated with waste-picking also result in both physical and mental stunting.
Life expectancy: Few studies have been done, but the 2004 World Bank study cited an earlier World Bank study in 1994. The 1994 study of Mexican waste pickers found that their life expectancy was 11 years lower than that of the overall Mexican population—53 versus 64.
Lack of education: Most children of waste pickers are themselves waste pickers. It takes the whole family working just to survive, but it takes education to break the cycle of poverty. Brazil has been the most proactive in eliminating child labor in the landfills. Parents are enrolled in a conditional cash transfer program in which they receive a monthly stipend as long as they send their children to school and get them vaccinated. The program also requires women to obtain prenatal care. This program has resulted in more than 40,000 children moving out of the landfill and into school.
Emotional and Psychological Issues: Waste pickers are on the margins of society. They are usually living on the edge—malnourished, uneducated, stigmatized, subject to harassment and physical attack by local authorities and others, physically exhausted, often working with injuries and illness and without any societal support. Waste pickers in Buenos Aires self-reported that they have suffered from depression, anxiety and nervousness. One study in Brazil showed that psychiatric disorders occurred 44.7 percent more often in recyclers than within the average neighborhood population, which signaled depression and anxiety.
The life of a waste picker is not one that many would choose. But escaping that life, through lack of resources and stigmatization, is almost impossible. As noted above, women are on the lower rungs in terms of income in a job that is usually far below the poverty line for everyone. The Unforgotten has a mission to help women waste pickers gain the skills, resources and confidence to escape a life both difficult and demeaning, and help girls get the nourishment, support, and skills that will enable them to reach their potential. The light at the end of the tunnel is not from the fires of burning trash; it is from the promise of a new and better life.
To visualize the world of the waste picker, see Environmental Graffitti’s slideshow –
Seven Communities Who Salvage Trash to Survive in the World’s Dumpsites.
Compiled by Donna Shaver
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