Family Life on a Garbage Dump

‘Hell on earth’: the great urban scandal of family life lived on a rubbish dump.

Countless communities around the world scavenge on open dumps – with terrible health consequences.

Night and day, thousands of waste pickers – people who gather, sort, reuse and sell the materials others throw away Families fashioned homes from rubbish, on top of rubbish. They itate rubbish, fight over it – and even died over it.

There were numerous other hazards. Putrid smoke seeped from the pile and residents had to step over broken glass and medical waste – one woman even said she stumbled on aborted foetuses among the rubbish. Researchers who studied dumps found dangerous levels of cancer-causing dioxins in the soil and heavy metals in the metabolisms of children working there. People reported the afflictions common to dump life worldwide: diarrhoea, headaches, chest and stomach pain, typhoid and irritation of the skin, nose and eyes.

Every day, they search the area for treasure — a tiny scrap of metal, a bit of plastic, maybe a bone. They use large hooks to sort through the garbage, which sometimes reaches two or three stories high. They work in teams, and more than often they are barefoot.
“They don’t look at the things they’re doing as being unsanitary or unhealthy or unsafe,” They collect plastic, metal and wires and sell it by the pound. The families make around $2 per day.

Their homes are constructed with recycled materials, with sometimes several families living in one shanty at a time. With no electricity, no running water — and an overabundance of trash — they are experts at repurposing.
Serious accidents, illnesses and even deaths are common. And outside the dump theys faced stigma and discrimination within society.

Around the world, millions of people make a living by waste picking. Some work on the city streets, pushing their carts along the pavement, often at night when there are fewer cars on the roads. Others are drawn to open dumps, where there is an abundant, concentrated supply of sellable material.

“The first thing that drives people to work with waste, wherever it is, is destitution – it’s poverty,” explains Sonia Dias, a leading Brazilian waste expert. Another is bad governance. “If there are open dumps in a city, it is because the municipality has a lot of issues, including its ability to manage solid waste,” she adds.

Live Case Study – New Delhi, India

The children didn’t notice the ravens and occasional vulture circling overhead, or the stream of black ooze that flowed nearby, or the inescapable stench of decay. They were squealing over a 4-cent ride on a small, hand-powered Ferris wheel.

The kids are growing up in New Delhi’s 70-acre Ghazipur landfill, a post-apocalyptic world where hundreds of pickers climb a 100-foot-high trash pile daily, dodging and occasionally dying beneath belching bulldozers that reshape the putrid landscape.

On “trash mountain,” families earn $1 to $2 a day slogging through waist-deep muck. But the residents also marry, have children on their dirt floors, pray and celebrate life’s other milestones.

“I am very proud to be a rag picker; we keep you healthy,” said Jai Prakash Choudhary, who has spent years scouring Delhi’s dumps in search of cast-off bottles, metal, even human hair.

An outgrowth of India’s rapidly expanding middle class with its embrace of Western-style consumerism is ever more waste: New Delhi produces about 9,200 tons of trash daily, up 50% from 2007. The garbage is expected to double by 2024, leaving Ghazipur and two other landfills overflowing.

That’s afforded the country’s 1.7 million rag pickers — with 350,000 in New Delhi alone — more pickings, allowing some to dream of one day joining those middle-class ranks.

Rising expectations and hunger for a better life are seen in small ways at Ghazipur, charity workers said. Children balk at donations of unfashionable clothing. Twentysomethings sport stylish haircuts. Many listen to the latest pop tunes on cheap cellphones.

Choudhary is a symbol of that slow rise to the middle class, the desire for more. The rag picker, who’s in his 30s, ran for councilman in this month’s municipal elections here. Although he lost, his candidacy is an inspiration to other rag pickers, and he’s promised to try again in a continuing effort to fight for their rights.

“Dirt comes from the top,” Choudhary said. “Politics is a noble profession, but Indian politicians are not. I won’t disappoint people.”

The first rung for many, including Choudhary, is trash mountain. In the trickle-down world of trash, they’re at the bottom. Because New Delhi has no real door-to-door waste-collection system, the most “desirable” refuse is snapped up by domestic workers or neighborhood pickers, who then take the leftovers to select waste sites around the city. From there, trash trucks dump the rest at Ghazipur, where residents pick over the leavings.