In 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.
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