Life and Death in the Landfill – There is a Better Way

Date: 9 Nov 2000 | posted in: Waste to Wealth | 0 Facebooktwitterredditmail

The Quezon City Landfill Tragedy

On 10 July as many as 500 scavengers died in one of Metro Manila’s teeming landfills. Intensive rains loosened a hill of municipal solid waste that collapsed on top of shanties and burst aflame. The victims, who made their livings by sorting through trash for recyclable items, were at the lowest rung of Philippine society.

From one to three million people live and work as landfill scavengers in the Southern Tier. These hard working people can recycle more than 50% of the solid waste generated by the cities on a daily basis. Without this small army of women and child labor, cities could not function. Yet, workers get no wages, no benefits and, needless to say, no respect. Furthermore, they rarely receive police protection and organized crime elements freely expropriate hard-won surpluses.

So uniform are the conditions in landfills throughout the Southern Tier that social scientists have documented common dreams among child scavengers and landfill dwellers in a wide variety of countries and cultures. The children dream of being buried up to their mouths and nostrils in slowly rising garbage. In these dreams, the children are helpless to extricate themselves because their hands and legs are immobilized.

Although the Manila tragedy was far more dramatic than is typical, deaths and maimings among scavenger populations are everyday occurrences in municipal landfills serving Asian, African, and Central and South American urban areas. When disease and demoralization are added to the accidents, a vision of the daily realities of scavengers throughout the world, is complete. Yet, remarkably, within the dumps people struggle and succeed to create community. The landfill dwellers carve out streets, build homes and schools, and start small businesses.

Political Economy of Landfills

This situation in Southern Tier urban landfills is no aberration of economic policy; rather it is a direct result of past and current policies supported by international finance agencies, local governments, and businesses in these distressed economies. The dismantling of traditional economies and changes in land-ownership patterns brought about by imposing market economies forced millions of people off the land and into cities.

The urban landfills are the staging grounds for the transition of the workforce from its traditional rural skills into an industrial workforce. Generations pass through. The landfill offers the rare opportunity for immediate food, shelter and a way to establish oneself in new circumstances. Among the discards of the government, business, and residential sectors a way of life presents itself. Some migrants remain forever. All of this activity takes place in the burgeoning ‘informal sector’ of Southern Tier economies. Generally, there are no government or private sector services in the landfill.

Policies for Change Not Progress

Unfortunately, the policy direction of international agencies and governments of Southern Tier countries is moving in the wrong direction. There are two thrusts to this policy. The first is to eliminate the urban landfills, which are eyesores and sources of pollution in the midst of the urban metropolis. For example, in one Southern Tier megacity of 8 million in South America, the policy called for the construction of a new landfill in a virgin green valley just three miles from center city. Barbed wire and machine gun turrets were planned to keep the scavenging hordes at bay. The plan did not consider the costs of increasing the waste stream by some 50% and hauling the waste to the new landfill. Nor were the costs of widening and hardening roads, and maintaining them, in order to support trucks and trailers.

The second thrust to current policy is to build large incinerators. These are the very same technologies that have been rejected by most U.S. and European urban planners due to successful efforts by grassroots groups which have called attention to increased economic and pollution costs of incineration as compared to recycling, composting, waste reduction and landfill systems. The success of this grassroots movement has literally driven the incinerator companies to market their wares in Southern Tier cities.

These $500 million facilities incur operating costs that are four times the costs of recycling, composting and landfill systems. The capital is used to destroy the very materials needed to sustain the scavenging populations. Furthermore, these incinerators pollute the air and create toxic ash that must be landfilled. Taiwan is scheduled to have 35 such incinerators. Fifteen have already been built. Bangkok and Manila are scheduled for similar rings of incinerators surrounding the cities.

An active citizens’ movement in these cities has now been linked to U.S. and European anti-incinerator coalitions. The plans for incineration in Southern Tier megacities are not going unchallenged. Key organizations involved in this international movement are Greenpeace International, Multinational Resource Center, Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives, the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, and the GrassRoots Recycling Network.

A Better Way

It is not commonly known that the conditions in Southern Tier landfills are completely and immediately redeemable; and future human and environmental exploitation is avoidable. Many landfill scavengers maintain an entrepreneurial spirit. They create informal landfill-based enterprises and strive to become part of the mainstream economy. They generate surpluses and invest their capital. Scavengers in many landfills have formed collection cooperatives where cooperation extends beyond the enterprise to shelter, childcare, food gathering and protection. But organized crime cripples many small businesses by confiscating earnings and surpluses.

Many landfill dwellers suffer for their lack of mobility, a circumstance forced upon them by organized crime. At a landfill for a South American megacity, the dwellers are met at the landfill gate and paid a fraction of the value for their materials, compared to the price they could receive for delivering materials directly to industrial firms just a few miles away. Organized crime elements prevent the residents from bettering themselves. If scavengers purchase trucks, criminals destroy them. In one incident, a small brick structure that housed a precious corrugated baler had its roof destroyed. Then the baler was disabled.

If scavengers were fairly compensated for their labor and the stranglehold of criminal elements was removed, small businesses would flourish. Investment in equipment and trucks would increase efficiency and productivity. The scavengers could join the formal economy.

The transformation of the landfill economy would contribute toward social and environmental justice, as well. Children would be freed from labor and go to school. Environmentally-sound methods will replace crude and environmentally dangerous methods. Urban infrastructure afforded the scavengers will reduce infectious diseases and other health related expenditures.

The Cost of Change

For every million people living in a Southern Tier urban area, there are one thousand scavengers, about half living in the landfill. To rationalize the current system of chaos in these urban landfills, immediate and direct investments must be made.

The fastest growing cost sector in Southern Tier cities is waste management with projected costs expected to increase exponentially; from $15 billion in 2000 to $100 billion by 2030. These dollars could be a source of economic growth, rather than ever deepening economic and social costs. A costly sector of the economy can be transformed into a highly productive and sustainable sector.

A typical system of urban landfills serving a megacity of 10 million people would require an investment of $8-10 million to eliminate the squalor and to open access for the scavengers to the mainline economy of the city. This investment would yield such an increase in productivity that children could be eliminated from the workforce. Workers would be able to afford schooling for their young. If scavenger enterprises were formalized and entered the tax rolls, the infrastructure for adequate shelter and community (roads, schools, clinics and recreation areas) could be afforded, as well.

Essential investments in worker productivity include equipment such as boots, gloves, basic hand tools, conveyor belts that allow workers to sort through materials without constant stooping and bending, and vehicles which give enterprises the ability to move materials to markets. Balers and sorting equipment would allow workers to prepare materials for market. Establishment of local enterprises could allow the landfill dwellers to add value to recovered materials. For example, workers could clean and sanitize glass bottles for reuse in plants adjacent to the landfill. Through vermicomposting – the use of worms to hasten the composting process – landfill dwellers could produce quality topsoil and marketable crops of worms.

New relationships can emerge between scavengers and their cities. Prior to the 1949 Communist Revolution in China, Shanghai’s scavengers were among the most downtrodden in the world. Within five years, however, these scavengers evolved into industrial leaders. Their efforts to build the Shanghai Resource Recovery Company with its matrix of collection, processing and manufacturing earned them the highest praise from their municipality. On a micro level, similar achievements have been realized. In San Paolo, Brazil, corporate investment in local scavenger operations has had dramatic results. By providing access to tools and carts, scavengers have been transformed into local merchants. They are accepted and respected within their communities.


Where there is civilization, there is scavenging. But the conditions of scavenging, and the economic and social relations between these essential industrial workers and their society at large, do not have to be mean and inhumane. They can be cooperative and sustainable.