Garbage CommunitiesGarbage: the word brings to mind unpleasant smells, flies and filth. But to some, it is home. Garbage communities consist of individuals making a living from and living within the confines of literal garbage dumps. For some people living in extreme poverty, the scrap cash that recycling garbage brings and the free space for building simple homes is the only option. And it isn’t an isolated, rare way of life. Nearly 15 million people across the globe live and “work” in garbage communities.

Making a Living

Members of garbage communities spend each day rummaging through the trash, hoping to find something decent enough to recycle. Once they find something — say a can or bottle — they collect these pieces and bring them to a middleman called an “agent”. The agent, (oftentimes a gang leader or crime lord) then sells the goods for much more, sucking up a large portion of the collector’s wage. This method brings in somewhere around $2.50 a day, not nearly enough for a decent living in most countries. Getting rid of the middleman is not an option, as violence and coercion are commonly used methods of silencing the garbage workers if they attempt to sell the items directly to the recycler.

Breeding Grounds of Disease

Living in waste — whether human, animal or artificial — brings with it a host of health problems. Contact with feces can cause intestinal worms, which can lead to stunted cognitive and physical growth in children. Pneumonia, spread by poor hygiene, is rampant in these communities, as are many other infectious diseases. This is likely because each gram of feces in which people in these conditions come into contact holds 10 million viruses. As a result, the average lifespan of people raised in these communities is about 35 years old.

But along with the physical burden is a huge mental and emotional weight. Garbage pickers are often stigmatized in their communities and referred to as “local rats”. Even if they are able to attend school or enter society looking for a job, they are seen as less than because of their occupation. Infections, illness, injuries from sharp objects, trauma and mental illness, spontaneous combustion from a buildup of methane gas, the list of dangers is endless. And yet, for the world’s most vulnerable, this is what it costs to live.

Promise for a Better Future

Several organizations are committed to bringing change to garbage communities and offering them a shot at a better life. ActionAid is an organization that specifically works with women and children in impoverished regions to help them stand up to sexual abuse and violence. ActionAid also helps children living in landfills get into school by pairing them with sponsors throughout the world. International Samaritan does similar work, providing promising young people in the dumps with scholarships so that they can escape the dump. This organization also funds entrepreneurs to start up their own businesses outside of the landfills.

By reaching the next generation, these programs bring promising hope for the future. Yet, many people still live under the burden of collecting and sorting the world’s waste. Although insufficient, an improvement would be providing a living wage, clean environment and benefits for garbage communities. Even by following correct rather than cheap landfill protocol, governments could greatly improve the quality of life for these communities by reducing the number of toxic waste individuals come into contact with.

Hannah Stewart
Photo: Flickr

Garbage for Electricity

Addis Ababa, the rapidly growing capital of Ethiopia, has had only one dump site for garbage. The Koshe dump site developed into a giant landfill over many years of unregulated dumping. A very literal mountain of garbage built up, filling roughly 36 football fields worth of land with waste. This problem came to a head when a garbage “landslide” wound up killing 114 people, many of them scavengers who had come to the dump in the hopes of finding something useful.

The dump was more than an eyesore. It was also a health hazard due to its creeping into populated areas, limiting living space where rapid expansion was a constant. The landfill also polluted nearby rivers, as well as the air with methane gasses from rot and decay.

The Reppie Power Plant

To solve this problem, Samuel Alemayehu put forth an idea for a way to transform the dump into a useful energy source. He proposed a plan to create a garbage incineration plant specifically for the purpose of creating electricity by burning the offending garbage. The Reppie Power Plant is meant to be the first of its kind, with others to follow as similar solutions in other cities.

“We believe these plants will create for African megacities a modern, multipurpose infrastructure… which will enable them simultaneously to dispose of waste, generate sustainable energy, clean, and reuse water, recycle valuable resources, generate industrial grade steam for use by other businesses, and, most importantly do all this in one facility located safely within city limits,” Alemayehu said.

A coalition of Ethiopia’s government and several international companies funded the Reppie Power Plant. It was modeled off similar plants from Europe and France, and the project was officially launched in 2017. The plant officially went operational the following year. The Reppie Power Plant is designed to process 1,400 tons of waste every day, which comes to roughly 80  percent of the city’s waste, all while producing 30 percent of the city’s electricity. It does this by burning the garbage to boil water, and the resultant steam turns massive turbines to produce the electricity.

The Reppie Power Plant is still operating, despite being shut down for three months in 2019 due to a dispute between contractors and Ethiopian Electric Power (EEP). It has also succeeded in inspiring other nations to adopt the same model. In Kenya, an incineration plant has been greenlit which is modeled directly off the Reppie Power Plant, with the equivalent of 197 million USD dedicated to the project. It is no surprise, since such plants simultaneously clear living space, eliminate sources of pollution and disease, eliminate eyesores and produce electricity. So long as it continues to operate properly, the Reppie Power Plant is likely to have a lasting positive effect in its own city and, as others follow its example, in other countries and cities around the world.

– Mason Sansonia
Photo: Flickr

People Living in LandfillsIn the outskirts of Jakarta, a city home to 10 million people, sits the largest uncovered landfill in Southeast Asia, Bantar Gebang. In Bantar Gebang, mounds of trash sit 10 stories high. Shockingly, Bantar Gebang is also home to approximately 18,000 people, people who are living in landfills and who make a living collecting plastics and valuables to sell for their day’s wages.

The situation in Jakarta is sadly common. In the developing world, open dumps are the most common way to dispose of waste that accompanies economic growth. Additionally, developing countries account for roughly 80 to 90 percent of the world’s mismanaged waste. It is therefore difficult to visualize those living in landfills amid this mismanaged waste. However, this reality is important to confront because the lives of those living in landfills depict the complications of poverty in the developing world.

Living in Landfills

For many, living in landfills is the only option. Those who uncover valuable rubbish or recyclables can earn up to $2 a day. Unfortunately, this is considered a modest earning, as 1.3 billion people live on less than $1.25 a day. Recycling companies also rely on landfill workers, sometimes called ragpickers. Subsequently, there remains a strong economic incentive for these workers and their families. In fact, these landfill workers are technically the only means of waste management in many cities.

The living conditions of the landfills have damaging effects on workers’ health. Near the Ghazipur landfill in Delhi, a local doctor says she sees nearly 70 people a day with diseases linked to the toxic pollutants in landfills. Most families, sadly, cannot afford to relocate, because they are paying for medical aid and food.

Managing Landfills

As for the existence of the landfills, there seems to be no end in sight. For most of the developing world, exponential growth in urban populations has directly lead to increased production of waste. For example, Delhi’s population in India has risen from 12 to 19 million in the past 20 years. Over that same period, daily waste has increased from 8 to 20 million pounds of trash in the city dumps. The sheer growth in waste has inundated residents, local leaders and politicians alike on regarding what to do with these landfills.

Many politicians lack the power and popular support to battle the mismanagement of landfills. Some politicians and supervisors of landfills fear closing down landfills will result in violent protests from ragpickers who have lost their jobs. Moreover, creating sanitary landfills would cost Delhi $75 million alone. Turning to “greener” alternatives, such as waste-to-energy treatment, are inaccessible due to a lack of funding, regulatory protection, technical skills and infrastructure.

Regulating Future Waste

The complex issues that surround the landfills speak to the many different ways to approach solutions to the problem.

  • Political: In Sao Paulo, Brazil, the Climate and Clean Air Coalition launched the Municipal Solid Waste Initiative in 2015. This initiative aims to help city government draft plans outlining projects, such as introducing organic material waste diversion and education programs for citizen awareness. The CCAC has completed 30 city baseline waste assessments and 16 city waste management work plans worldwide.
  • Medical: Because of the toxic waste and pollutants in open landfills, UNICEF has begun working with primary schools to educate children on the importance of hygiene and sanitation. UNICEF seeks to do this through WASH (water supply, sanitation, hygiene) policies set out by the Indonesian government.
  • Economic: The World Bank works in a variety of countries seeking to bolster sanitation infrastructure through economic investment and funding. In 2012, the World Bank loans funded the rehabilitation of the main landfill site in Azerbijan, increasing the population the landfill serves from 53 percent, in 2008, to 74 percent. The World Bank also invests in building infrastructure in other countries, including Indonesia, Argentina and Morocco.
  • Sociopolitical: Buenos Aires, Argentina established a policy to be a zero-waste city by 2020. Like “ragpickers” in Bantar Gebang, 5,000 cartoneros in Argentina work in city-built warehouses, sorting and collecting trash each night. This allows them to work in better living conditions and negotiate prices with recycling companies as a collective entity. Buenos Aires shows the success of grassroots and people-first solutions that improve landfill workers’ economic, social, medical and political poverty.

Understanding the despair and dignity that “ragpickers” live with is important in understanding the developing world and building effective solutions, because the plight of landfill workers is not only monetary or political.

– Luke Kwong
Photo: Pixabay

10 facts about plastic waste in southeast asia
The Philippines recently made headlines when they sent nearly 70 cargoes of imported refuse from Canada. But the Philippines is not alone in their rejection of plastic waste from the developed world. Countries like Malaysia, Indonesia, and Thailand have followed in China’s footsteps to establish a total ban on plastic imports. What is the broader story behind these import bans? What will Canada do with their 70 cargoes of waste? To answer these questions, here are 10 facts about plastic waste in Southeast Asia.

10 Facts About Plastic Waste in Southeast Asia

  1. Worldwide Production: Worldwide production of plastics reached 381 million tons of plastics in 2015, nearly doubling from 213 million tons of plastics in 2000. The packaging industry accounts for nearly 141 million tons of plastic production.
  2. Low Recycling Rates: Only 9% of all plastic is recycled, while 79% heads straight to landfills. Another 12% is incinerated. This means that of the estimated 8.3 billion tonnes of plastic existing in the natural world or in landfills worldwide, only 500 million tons are recycled.
  3. Waste per Capita: China ranks the highest in overall plastic waste disposal, generating an average of around 59.08 million tons of plastic per year. Other Southeast Asian countries such as Indonesia, Vietnam, and the Philippines dispose between 2.5 and 5 million tons of plastic. Comparably, the United States produces an astounding 37.83 million tons of plastic waste, making it the country with the highest political waste per capita ratio. This fact, among these 10 facts about plastic waste in Southeast Asia, highlights that waste management cannot be considered a purely regional issue. It is a global issue.
  4. Plastic Management: Countries in Southeast Asia, Africa, and other low-income countries have the highest shares of plastic waste that is deemed inadequately mismanaged. Just five countries–China, Indonesia, the Philippines, Thailand, and Vietnam–produce half of all plastic waste in the world’s oceans.
  5. Growing Alarm: The growing amount of plastic is alarming for many reasons. According to a WasteAid report, nearly 9 million people die each year from diseases related to waste pollutants. There is also a growing concern that microplastics found in the tissues of fish could be dangerous to human health. Additionally, tons of plastic are diverted to dumpsites, which could contribute to 8-10% of all greenhouse gas emissions by 2025.
  6. Huge Imports: While Southeast Asian countries are culpable for mismanaged plastic waste and contamination of the worlds’ oceans, they also import more plastic waste than any other region in the world. Before its ban on plastic, China imported 6.4 million tons of plastic waste in 2017. In the last quarter of 2018, the UK alone exported nearly 18,000 tons of plastic waste to Malaysia.
  7. The US Plays a Key Role: Plastic waste and pollution particularly in Southeast Asia is a problem of poverty and represents a broader dynamic between the developed and developing world. In 2018, the United States sent an equivalent of 68,000 shipping containers of plastic to developing countries who already mismanaged 70% of plastic waste. Workers in places like Vietnam sort contaminated, hazardous plastic waste from the U.S. in poor working conditions for meager pay.
  8. Impact of a Total Ban: With the recent rollbacks on plastic imports to the poorly regulated shores of Southeast Asia, researchers believe China’s ban alone displaced 120 million tons of plastic in 2017. Thailand has followed suit, stating that it will enforce a total ban on plastics by 2021. The introduction of these bans ironically has Australia, Canada, and European countries, facing growing piles of low-quality plastic scraps, a problem they can no longer export away.
  9. World Bank Initiatives: The World Bank has confronted poverty and lack of infrastructure as one of the main ways to address the colossal problem of plastic waste and its relationship to poverty and poor regulations in developing countries. The World Bank has committed $4.7 billion to more than 340 solid waste management programs to improve waste disposal methods in predominantly developing countries. They particularly seek to bolster waste disposal infrastructure, legal regulations, and health and safety, among others.
  10. A Shifting Paradigm: In the developed world, import bans have forced countries like the U.S. to renew investments in recycling infrastructure and public education on issues of plastic waste. Some states have imposed strict regulations on plastic production and consumption, and with more public awareness and subsequent political pressure, more states can follow. On a corporate level, companies like Intel, Eaton, and Texas Instruments recycle more than 85% of their waste, hopefully, with more to follow.

In developed countries, one of the main ways to mitigate this issue is to limit the consumption of plastic products and review the laws that have allowed the harmful trade of plastic waste to places like the Philippines. In developing countries, banning contaminated plastic waste the first step in ensuring that every country takes responsibility for their own waste. These 10 facts about plastic waste in Southeast Asia highlight the numerous components in this growing crisis.

Luke Kwong
Photo: Flickr