Let’s face it, the world produces a lot of waste. In 2016 alone, the world produced approximately 2.01 trillion tons of waste. This is an astronomical number that, by 2050, is expected to increase by 70 percent, according to the World Bank. East Asia and the Pacific region are the world’s largest producers of waste, producing 23 percent or 468 million tons of waste each year. A majority of this waste ends up in landfills. In developing countries, such as those in East Asia and the Pacific region, 90 percent of waste is burned or thrown in unregulated dumps.
This waste disproportionately impacts the poor. In many middle- to low-income cities, nongovernmental companies control waste management and are backed by many of the governments of each country. These companies employ a large percentage of children under the age of 18. Moreover, East Asia and the Pacific region have more working children than anywhere else in the world. The United Nations Environmental Programme states that in cities such as Phnom Penh, Cambodia, the percentage of working children is as high as 51 percent. These children are the children of the landfills.
The Children of the Landfills
These children who work in these toxic waste fills are among the most vulnerable and impoverished in the world. They often have to miss school to work in landfills, contributing to their families’ income. This subsequently contributes to a cycle of poverty, as there is a direct correlation between the amount of education a person receives and their level of poverty. If a child is not given the tools they need to succeed in the modern world, then they are forced to succumb to the depths of poverty as that is all they have ever known.
In many of these countries, the vast majority of landfills are unregulated dumps in which toxic waste is present in alarmingly high amounts. Health symptoms, such as fatigue and headaches, are commonly reported, along with low birth weights and stunted growth in children. These hazardous materials also expose the children who work in these dumps to an increased risk of a variety of cancers including, leukemia, lung cancer and brain cancer.
A Uniquely Dangerous Environment
Sadly, for the children of the landfills, toxic waste is merely one of several hazards they are exposed to on a daily basis. Children must be cautious of where they step due to broken glass and other sharp objects. They also must be wary of water-filled sinkholes hidden by the plastic waste that floats on its surface. If a child were to fall in, they would likely never be found again.
The most dangerous hazard for the children is trash avalanches, caused by workers in bulldozers moving trash as the children collect scraps. The World’s Children Prize tells the story of a 14-year-old girl named Kean who witnessed the dangers of working near the bulldozers. She explains that a young boy was crushed to death by a pile of trash, as the bulldozer operator was oblivious to the child’s presence.
The West and China
East Asia and the Pacific region’s waste problems have recently become exacerbated by China’s decision in 2018 to stop importing most recyclable waste. For 25 years, China was the world’s largest importer of recyclable waste. This sudden shift in the recyclables market prompted the West to redirect it’s waste to countries such as Thailand and Malaysia. These countries have since become overwhelmed with waste, greatly amplifying the plight of the children of the landfills.
The Good News
Fortunately, the United Nations and nonprofits have a plethora of initiatives aimed at fighting poor waste management. In particular, the Gates Foundation works with the governments of East Asian countries to improve sanitation and waste management by implementing more efficient waste management systems.
Organizations, such as the World’s Children Prize, help empower the children of the landfills through education, so they can break free from the cycle of poverty. Similarly, the International Labor Organization fights for the rights of children in these developing countries.
More importantly, the best way ordinary people can help these children is by decreasing individual waste footprints. This can be accomplished in a wide variety of ways. To do so, easy changes can be made, such as using refillable water bottles, declining to use plastic straws and silverware. Bigger changes involve changing one’s diets and methods of transportation. Whether one makes small or big changes, the children of the landfills rely on them to fight for a better future.
– Shane Thoma