A mangangalahig, or scavenger, atop the 130-foot high garbage mountain at the Payatas Dump, Quezon City, Philippines. (Photo: (c) Matthew Power, 2006)
The local dump is a place many of us visit every once in a while to throw out trash, but around the world, millions of people call it home. At Payatas, a gigantic mountain of garbage outside Manila in the Philippines, adults and children scavenge through the trash daily for treasures such as plastic and computer parts to be sold for more money than the average Filipino citizen earns. Matthew Power traveled to Payatas and wrote about it for Harper’s Magazine. He talks with host Bruce Gellerman.
GELLERMAN: For most of us, “out of sight, out of mind,” toss it away and it’s gone. But imagine what really happens to all that trash the world throws away.
POWER: As we come over a rise my first glimpse of Payatas is hallucinatory, a great grey smoky mass that towers above the trees and shanties creeping up to its edge. On the rounded summit a tiny backhoe crawls along a contour seeming to float in the sky.
GELLERMAN: That’s Matthew Power writing about a place called Payatas. It’s just outside Manila, the capital city of the Philippines it’s a gargantuan mountain of garbage.
Matthew Power ((c) Matthew Power, 2006)
POWER: As we approach shapes and colors emerge out of the grey. What at first seemed to be flocks of seagulls spiraling upward reveal themselves to be cyclones of plastic bags. The huge hill itself appears to shimmer in the heat and then its surface resolves into a slow moving mass of people, hundreds of them, scuttling like termites over a mound. From this distance, Payatas displays a terrible beauty inspiring an amoral wonder at the sheer scale and collective will that built it from the accumulated detritus of millions of lives.
GELLERMAN: Matthew Power is a contributing editor at Harper’s Magazine and his recent article “The Magic Mountain: Trickle-Down Economics in a Philippine Garbage Dump” is a riveting journey into a world that few of us can imagine, but that millions of people actually inhabit. It’s the world of garbage pickers people who make their living scouring through the refuse of their countrymen. The residents of Payatas, says Matthew Power, are much like those in shantytowns throughout the developing world.
POWER: Largely they’re people that have migrated from other parts of the Philippines, the sort of rural hinterlands of the Philippine island group, are incredibly poor so a lot of people from the country side, and this is a global phenomenon, a lot of people from the Philippine country side have moved to the boundaries and the perimeters of the larger urban areas. And one of the most plausible means of making a living that they found is to work these enormous garbage dumps.
GELLERMAN: And this Hell heap Payatas is better than where they came from?
POWER: In a lot of ways. You can actually make in a given day, they’re called mangangalahigs, that’s the word in Philippino. Um, on a given day you can make about twice the national mean income by scavenging through the trash for recyclables.
GELLERMAN: But they don’t only work on this dump they live next to it.
POWER: Yeah, there is a large shanty town that’s been built up around it and that was actually the reason I first went to Payatas was because of this disaster that happened in 2000, was a section of the dump collapsed and killed 300 people in one of the shanty towns that had been built up on the edge of the dump
GELLERMAN: This mountain of garbage at Payatas must be incredibly toxic the way you describe it, this stuff oozing out of the ground?
POWER: Yeah, it’s a real problem. I mean one of the things is because Payatas originally, 30 years ago, was started as an illegal dump site it was essentially just a ravine that people started dumping garbage in and it metastasized into this enormous mountain of garbage. So it’s never had a liner like a proper garbage dump is supposed to have to keep all the leachate, which is this chemical distillate of all the different things that are in the garbage, from leaking out. So you have this problem that just spreads out into the waterways and flows directly into the Pasig river, which is the main sort of waterway that runs through metro Manila.
A polluted tributary of the Pasig River, below the Payatas dump, in which boys wash plastic bags for recycling. ((c) Matthew Power, 2006)
There’s all sorts of health issues. Um, now in Payatas the city is trying to fix a lot of these things but it’s a huge effort trying to change this site that’s been going downhill like this for 30 years. There’s no way to, to move the entire dump of Payatas and put it somewhere else. I talked to an engineer who said it would take 3,000 trucks a day, eleven years to move all the garbage that’s already there.
GELLERMAN: What did it smell like, this mountain of trash?
POWER: It’s funny, you actually begin to get acclimatized to it relatively fast. I mean It smells terrible, as you can imagine. You’re in the tropics so it’s very humid. It rains a lot. And you’re standing on a 150 foot high pile of putrescent garbage. You know there’s food rotting. There’s a lot of burning, um so there’s a lot of plastic burnt smoke in the air, which is also incredibly toxic. It’s filled with dioxin. So it smells terrible. I think if you, you know if you left your garbage out in the sun for a week and then stuck your head inside the bag you’d get a good sense. But by the same token you actually kind of get used to it after a few days.
GELLERMAN: You write about Manila being this sprawling megalopolis. That’s dumping 7,000 tons of debris every day in these dumps. And that this is not unique to Manila. That this is a global problem.
POWER: Yeah, that’s a global phenomenon. At the beginning of the industrial revolution two percent of the world lived in cities. And this year it’s going to be 50 percent and the estimate is by 2050, actually 80 percent of the world will live in these urban areas, and half of that will be slums. Slums like Payatas and Lagos, Nigeria, Mexico City, Cairo, Mumbai, which I lived in India for a year, and there’s a slum on the outskirts of Mumbai called Darvie, which has a million people living in a square mile.
GELLERMAN: These type of communities that are surrounding these dumps; they seem to be serving a useful function for the rest of us.
POWER: Ah yeah, well I spoke to one sociologist who had done an extensive study on the scavengers in Manila and the statistic he came up with was that they were actually pulling 25 percent of the daily house hold waste out of the waste stream and into recycling. So they’re actually serving an incredibly important economic ecological niche. They’re, you know, taking almost all the usable plastics all the usable metals. They were pulling out parts of computers and reusing them; there’s a whole mini industry of recycling Pentium chips and printer cartridges. Which printer cartridges are like the diamonds that are scattered about inside this garbage. Like if you find one that’s the best day because you can sell them for something on the order of five or six dollars a piece.
GELLERMAN: And that represents what percentage of their daily income?
POWER: Oh, that’d be about twice what you would make on a normal day.
GELLERMAN: So these people are like bottom feeders in a sense. They’re serving a social function. And if they close these dumps or put them off limits to these scavengers what would happen to them? And, I guess, what would happen to us?
POWER: One of the problems when they closed Payatas for a few months was that garbage piled up all over the city. They simply didn’t have anywhere else to bring it. If you put these dumps further out in the countryside the scavenger community will follow the garbage. It’s like a gold rush. They’ll follow it wherever it goes. So the society is pretty resilient. And they’re very good at figuring out what they can do to survive. Which is a phenomenon that’s kind of across the entire ecology of slums all over the world. I mean there’s this tendency to turn them into these UNICEF posters of something to be pitied. What I came away from there with was this real sense of human endurance and the ability to survive and still lead a happy life.
I’m not saying that they shouldn’t have the opportunities to make things better for themselves but I think that by just pitying them you deny them this sort of agency to make something of their lives. And when they’re allowed to sort of organize themselves and help with organizing themselves they actually can do really amazing things and be a big part of you know an ecological mentality. You know, a lot of them are starting to see themselves as recyclers and as understanding that they’re doing a good thing, which empowers them to demand better standards of living for themselves.
An 8 year old boy scavenger at Pier 18, a waste transfer station on the Manila waterfront. ((c) Matthew Power, 2006)
So, I think the best thing to do is to create a policy where you’re legitimizing these people and giving them a real role and some sort of dignity out of making an actual job out of this and adding health standards and adding some sort of security, and not allowing children to do it. Which is actually what’s beginning to happen at Payatas the minimum age is 14 years old. Now there’s definitely some kids who sneak in and work. But they are actually trying to keep the youngest children from the dump its self.
GELLERMAN: Matthew Power is a contributing editor to Harper’s Magazine. His article, The Magic Mountain appears in a recent issue of the magazine. Matthew, thank you very much.
POWER: Thank you.
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