The United Nations estimates that the world wastes more than a billion tons of garbage annually. The vast majority of this garbage ends up in landfills, and human scavengers attempt to live off what the rest of the world has thrown away.
In the New Delhi 70-acre Ghazipur landfill alone there are an estimated 350,000 scavengers, or ‘rag pickers’. Living in filth, people spend their days sorting the endless trash into towering mountains, searching for items they can sell.
Plastic bags go for 5¢ a pound, and human hair fetches $18 a pound.
Sheikh Habibullah, has built a dirt-floor hut for his family of six by hanging rice-bags for walls, palm-leafs as a roof, and a Bollywood poster board for the door. The family collectively earns $60 a month, half of which pays a local boss for rent and the electricity to power a single light bulb.
For most, a doctor is out of the question and with boundless toxins leaking into the landfill from local dairies, slaughterhouses and a crematorium, cancer and birth defects are common.
Nevertheless 60-year-old Sheikh Abdul Kashid claims he’s “much freer here…I’ve given four children some education. I could never do that back home.”
At a landfill outside Karuvadikuppam in India, rag pickers celebrate when someone finds a chicken bone in the newest truck delivery. Scavengers also sometimes find onions, tomatoes, or garlic. A woman calls out to a passing reporter, “Don’t take the garbage away. We get everything from it. We survive because of it.”
In La Chureca landfill beside Lake Nicaragua a shelter has been set up for landfill workers. At Los Quinchos Centre people can receive lunch and, if they can afford the time off, relax with puzzles or practice their writing by copying down sentences and numbers. Maggie Barclay, a reporter for ‘Guardian Weekly’ asked a little boy about the birds in his drawing. He told her they were vultures – the only birds he’d ever seen.
The Huléne garbage dump in Maputo, Mozambique is home to an estimated 700 people. The sight of a garbage truck causes many to give chase, hoping to be the first to look through the new trash delivery. According to Jose Ferriera’s research these deliveries procure “everything from food, recyclable material, dead animals and fetuses of newly born.”
Ferriera spent time among the landfill community in Mozambique, and found that “[d]espite all the circumstances of how they live, they keep on showing their kindness and happiness and hospitality. We don’t find these human qualities in many places in the world.” He explains that living in the landfill was never a choice for many of them, and how “[m]any of them have seen the other side and dream of it themselves and every day they hope for a better life.”
– Lydia Caswell