Garbage: 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