Landfills remain out of sight and out of mind for most people living in the United States, but many of the world’s poor depend on these collections of waste for their income and food. Though landfills allow people to survive in the short term, they often sicken and kill the people who attempt to live off of them.
What Is a Landfill?
A landfill is basically a mound of trash composed of many “cells” of compacted materials. In the United States and other developed countries, landfills are covered with several layers of soil at the end of each day and are capped with plastic, soil and grass once they hit capacity. These measures reduce the amount of toxins that leak out of landfills, protecting surrounding communities.
Even the most regulated landfills have been proven to seep huge amounts of leachate, a toxic liquid that is released by trash into groundwater and soil. This chemical causes birth defects and contributes to higher incidences of bladder cancer, liver cancer, lung cancer, leukemia, and non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. According to CNN, landfills also seep high amounts of methane, which is “20 times more powerful than CO2” at heating the atmosphere.
Disparities in Regulation
According to the United Nations Environmental Protection Programme, “tens of thousands of square kilometers of land” worldwide have been contaminated by inadequate landfills. Most of these landfills do not meet minimum standards and include massive amounts of untreated waste, yet they have become a source of subsistence for the world’s poor.
Living off of Landfills
Hundreds of thousands of the world’s poorest citizens live and work on landfills, deprived of education and access to basic social services. In Indonesia, for example, more than 2,000 families live on the Bantar Gebang landfill that lies outside of Jakarta, selling or consuming salvageable materials in order to survive. In Baguio, Philippines, a 2011 typhoon caused the wall of the Irisan Dumpsite to collapse, killing three people. Though there are high incidences of death and disease among those who live on or near landfills, most of them lack other opportunities and are forced to live amongst waste to survive.
In order to begin addressing the danger faced by those living on landfills, the international community must strengthen environmental regulations and address immediate hazards such as untreated waste. It is costly to redevelop landfills, but doing so can greatly limit the amount of harmful chemicals to which surrounding populations are exposed.
Organizations such as USAID also provide those living on landfills with access to sustainable sources of income. In 2010, USAID helped 930,000 people “to improve their incomes through sustainable natural resource management,” veering them away from the hazardous environment of landfills. USAID is also working with countries such as India, Russia and Turkey to channel methane emissions into sustainable energy. While harmful when released into the atmosphere, methane can be used as an inexpensive energy source.
Thousands continue to subsist off of others’ waste, but USAID and other aid organizations are gradually helping the world’s poor to leave landfills in turn for safer economic opportunities.