Payatas – Trash City

August 7, 2007

My first real wakeup call about trash in the modern world came when I visited the dump community, Payatas, in the Philippines in March of 2003. I was, by that time, no longer a stranger to the breath-taking frankness of the hard knocks life in the so-called third world. But my visit to Payatas shocked me to the core. Metro Manila has several large (and I mean gigantic) municipal dumpsites, the largest of which is Payatas. Unlike in the US, for better or for worse, it is not simply a landfill – a large hole in the ground where trash is deposited until its filled and which is then sealed over and planted with grass and forgotten. Payatas is the site of a large informal recycling community. Hundreds of families live around and on the dump and earn their living by waiting on top of the pile as the trucks come in and then sorting through the waste in search of valuable items.
Some basic facts: 150,000 people work on the dump, picking through their share of the 6,700 tons of garbage that Metro Manila produces daily. The city has ten such dumps, all over flowing, of which Payatas is the most widely known, due to a collapse in 2000 that killed 200 people. More than 400 trucks come to the 100 foot high mountain of trash every day bringing in 1.800 tons of trash in a 16 hour work day. (2)
Payatas is the successor to Smokey Mountain, a still larger dump on the island of Luzon, which was home to the largest slum in Asia until it was forcibly cleared and the landfill closed by the Filipino government in November 1995. After the landslide at Payatas, the government attempted to close it too, but it was reopened at the demand of its workers, who are dependent on trash picking for their livelihood. (1)
What happens to all that trash? “The bounty of the trucks is sifted and sorted by the scavengers, who pass it on to scrap shops specializing in copper wire, old newspapers, aluminum cans, plastic, cardboard bits of machinery, box springs, raffle tickets, tires, broken toys – virtually all the infinite components of civilized life.? (2)
The way I remember it, the people of Payatas were able to find a use for nearly everything that came off the trucks – all of it going off to be reused, melted down, composted, or who knew what – except the plastic bags. I know that these can be recycled in the US because I’ve seen the collection sites outside grocery stores but in the Philippines there doesn’t seem to be a market for it. So in the end as you step across the ‘ground’ on the dump mountain looking down stories and across blocks to see the edges, what you’re standing on is mostly plastic bags. Bear in mind Manila is home to a society almost pathologically obsessed with plastic bags. If you buy something in a store, all other things being equal, you will walk out with at least three bags. In a grocery store all produce comes plastic wrapped, then is double bagged for you by a smiling attendant – who’s happy demeanor will turned to semi-horrified puzzlement should you attempt to refuse a bag. It seems to represent the pinnacle of modern, sanitary, western style living. So consequently they figure largely in the city’s trash. The man-made mountain of bags covers 22 hectares of land. It is awe inspiring. It is awesome. It is awful.
Visiting that dump community certainly made a big impression on me. I am still vigilant to the point of obnoxious about refusing plastic bags in stores – even if I’ve forgotten to bring one and end up with an unwieldy armload of goods to schlep home. In fact, for a long time I dedicated everything I threw away “to Payatas, with love? under my breath to heighten my own consciousness of the waste. I keep my own trash to a minimum – avoiding packaging where I can, recycling everything possible, composting via a neighbor actually in possession of a yard. I’ve been known to pick up other people’s plastic bottles – and even to go through trash after them – to keep them out of the waste stream.
The trash community at Payatas in the Philippines is not an isolated incident. Similar “recycling? systems are in place all around the globe – anywhere the daily average wage is low enough to make garbage picking a viable livlihood. In Mexico City, these pickers are known as pependadores.(1) In Cairo they are called Zabaline. The zabaline collect around a third of their city’s trash, of which they are able to redirect around 80%, “down to the filaments of the lightbulbs.? This translates to around 30 percent of the overall waste of Cairo which is more than double that achieved in the United States thus far.(2) So much for sustainability being a fad of the rich first world!
[Note to self: also look into the “chiffoniers? of Boston’s Back Bay dump in the mid 1800’s]
All of this is happening very far away and is, theoretically, not applicable to the modern United States. We don’t allow children to pick through carcinogenic refuse in our landfills anymore. The memory of Payatas affects me on a personal level; it gives me a visual aid to help me frame the concept of my own garbage. But the trash management policies of metro Manila have little bearing on what we do with garbage here in America.
[Next question: What DO we do with garbage here in America?]
(2) A Hell on Earth, Lived by Children and Parents. Stephen Holden. New York Times. (Late Edition (East Coast)). New York, N.Y.: Mar 28, 2002. pg. E.5
(3) Eking Out a Living, of Sorts, From a Mountain of Muck. Seth Mydans. New York Times. (Late Edition (East Coast)). New York, N.Y.: May 23, 2006. pg. A.4
(1) Rathje, 1992, 192

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