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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Manila Trash

Air Date: Week of

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CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. Just ahead: A dime store purchase that led to a lifelong friendship between man and turtle. But first, one of the most unwelcome payloads in waste disposal history is stuck at a dock on Florida's east coast in the town of Stuart. A Philadelphia garbage barge left that city 15 years ago, carrying thousands of tons of incinerated trash, and, after all these years, no one seems quite sure who's responsible for it. Country after country refused the ash. In 1988 some of it, misrepresented as fertilizer, was dumped on a beach in Haiti. The rest landed illegally in a watery grave at sea. Finally last year, Haitian officials succeeded in getting the ash that hadn't already blown off the beach shipped to Florida. It now sits on a barge owned by Captain Stan Kraly, who joins us from the studios of WQCS in Fort Pierce, Florida. Hello, Captain Kraly.

KRALY: Hello.

CURWOOD: So, you accepted this ash as a temporary measure, I guess, as a pit stop while transferring it off the ship from Haiti and into trucks here. How long did you expect to be babysitting this stuff?

KRALY: We were told we would have it for three to seven days.

CURWOOD: (Laughs) Been a lot longer than that.

KRALY: It became three to seven weeks, then three to seven months, and we're a little over a year right now.

CURWOOD: Now, when you had it for a year, I understood you kind of celebrated.

KRALY: Well, we had a huge candle that we stuck in it, and all of us stood around it and said this is the one-year anniversary.

CURWOOD: (Laughs) What exactly is happening now to get rid of this stuff? To finally resolve the situation? Can you walk me through some of the mechanics of it?

KRALY: Waste Management, the consignee of the cargo, is diligently looking for a place for it to reside. A landfill or concrete encapsulation. And the local politics, the county commissioners of Martin County, are doing their best to resolve the problem with Waste Management. And we're storing it until they come up with an answer.

CURWOOD: So the lesson learned from this, you said to yourself, what?

KRALY: If anyone brings by a bag of garbage, don't accept it.

CURWOOD: Wait a second, that's the problem you're in.

KRALY: No, because we really shouldn't be holding and storing this for this length of time. It's very much out of order.

CURWOOD: Do you feel like you're holding the bag?

KRALY: Pun intended, of course.

CURWOOD: Captain Stan Kraly owns Maritime Tug and Barge in Stuart, Florida. Thank you for joining me, Captain Kraly.

KRALY: Thank you.

CURWOOD: Officials in the Philippine capital, Manila, have dropped a controversial plan to barge some of that city's garbage to other parts of the archipelago. Manila generates about 6,000 tons of garage a day, so much trash that the teeming metropolis has run out of places to put it. The city's main landfill was closed last year after angry community protests concerning potential health risks. The Philippines' new president, Gloria Arroyo, has promised to reduce Manila's waste, and her first piece of legislation puts a premium on recycling. From Manila, Orlando de Guzman reports.

(Motors, whistles, shouting)

DE GUZMAN: Much of the recycling done in the Philippines happens at massive dumpsites like this one on the outskirts of Manila.

(Shouting, motors, whistling continue)

DE GUZMAN: Here, trucks roll in every few minutes to unload garbage from metro Manila's 12 million residents.

(Sounds continue)

DE GUZMAN: This dump is more than 600 feet high, so large the trucks and bulldozers on it look like small insects. It's the biggest trash heap in the Philippines, and officially it's called Payatas. But for the thousands of poor Filipinos who pick through the trash for a living, it's known as the Promised Land, a smoldering mountain of rotten vegetables, used tires, and plastic bags that gives off stinging, acrid vapors.

MAGLACIO: [Speaks in Filipino]
TRANSLATOR: We choose the garbage, the waste. We somehow know what's going to sell, what is salable.

DE GUZMAN: Alma Maglacio tears open bags of garbage with a sharp metal hook. Glass bottles can be resold for a few cents a pound. The amber-colored ones for perfume and cough syrup sell for even more. She drags a burlap sack full of copper wire, scraps of cardboard, and broken glass. You've got to stay alert, says Maglacio. Competition between scavengers is tough.

MAGLACIO: [Speaks in Filipino]
TRANSLATOR: You don't have to be fast about getting the waste. You just have to be observant. So you get everything. You get the most valuable waste, just like jewelry and gold. If you are so fast, you might miss it.

DE GUZMAN: But striking gold is rare. More common are the daily hazards. Dump trucks sometimes lose their brakes. Broken glass can cut your hands and feet. The risk of acquiring tetanus, cholera, and dysentery are high, and there's the occasional load of toxic chemicals mixed in with the garbage. These dangers of picking through trash have gone unnoticed by most Filipinos until last July, when heavy rains caused a large part of the garbage dump to collapse. An entire village was buried beneath tons of trash. Rescue workers recovered about 200 bodies. The exact death toll is still unknown, and many here believe hundreds more lie buried. The Payatas disaster was a huge embarrassment for the government, which temporarily closed down the dump. For many of Manila's residents the disaster brought an urgency to Manila's garbage problem. Von Hernandez is the campaign director for Greenpeace in Manila.

HERNANDEZ: I think people realized, when Payatas happened, that everybody, actually, not just local government executives and the national government agencies, but everyone had a contribution for that disaster. Because when you throw your garbage in the trash bin, garbage goes somewhere, and is going to Payatas and has created that mountain, which has killed people.

DE GUZMAN: The garbage problem in Manila has been around for decades. During the reign of former president Ferdinand Marcos, another garbage dump known as Smokey Mountain became a symbol of poverty brought on by Marcos' corrupt regime. Marcos was ousted during a popular revolt 15 years ago known as People Power.

(Crowds cheer)

DE GUZMAN: In January hundreds of thousands of Filipinos gathered in the streets of Manila for People Power Two, this time to oust President Joseph Estrada, who now faces criminal charges for plundering the country of millions of dollars. Many at the demonstrations were fed up with what they saw as rampant corruption in the government. That the garbage problem got particularly worse under Estrada, says Hernandez, is not surprising.

HERNANDEZ: Pollution is also a function of corruption. The more corrupt your government leaders are, the more polluted the environment is.

DE GUZMAN: The Philippines new president, Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, has promised to clean up government as well as Manila's garbage-strewn streets. But there are no easy solutions. For one, there's not a single government agency in charge of overseeing waste management here. That's because metro Manila is a sprawling checkerboard made up of ten towns, seven cities, and three provinces. Each jurisdiction is run by influential local mayors whose power rests largely on patronage and corruption, says Hernandez.

HERNANDEZ: What happened in the past, and I think to a great extent is still happening now, is that decisions are made behind closed doors. The people are not aware. People are made to believe that the only solution was landfilling or opening a dump site or running an incinerator.

DE GUZMAN: These three options are becoming more and more unpopular here. Incinerators are banned under a recent clean air act, and no one wants Manila's trash dumped on their island. Because garbage is such a political issue, few officials are willing to touch the problem, especially now that local elections are coming up this May. Benjamin Abalos is the chairman of the Metro Manila Development Authority, a government body charged with finding solutions to Manila's garbage crisis. He admits that corruption is a problem, but only half the problem.

ABALOS: The biggest problem is the attitude of the people, because, you know, you can't just change the habit of people overnight. We have been used to having garbage unsorted, having only one receptacle, everything there. But that is number one.

DE GUZMAN: Filipinos recycle only about six percent of their trash, compared to 30 percent in the U.S. To change that, president Macapagal-Arroyo recently passed a law mandating all households and neighborhoods to begin sorting their garbage, the first law of its kind in the country. President Macapagal-Arroyo is also requiring every local government to come up with a ten-year solid waste management plan.

(Ambient voices)

DE GUZMAN: Some local activists, like Narda Camacho, have been trying to raise awareness about recycling for years. Every day Camacho goes around Manila's maze of neighborhoods preaching about what trash can and can't be reused.

CAMACHO: The major problem is lack of information. Very few people know about this. That is why we are having a tough time implementing the law.

DE GUZMAN: Camacho says 90 percent of the waste generated by an average Manila household can be recycled.

(Glass bottles clink)

DE GUZMAN: Seeing the potential, Camacho founded a non-governmental organization called Linis Ganda, which means Clean and Beautiful in Filipino. Over the past ten years, her organization has set up 550 private neighborhood junk shops, where residents can sell their recyclables. Many of the junk shops are run by former scavengers, like Igmedio Tambong.

TAMBONG: [Speaks in Filipino]
TRANSLATOR: If it weren't for our recycling center, then a lot more garbage would be thrown away in dumps. And that would add to the government's problems. We are able to help, but we need the government to become more involved.

(Shouting, motors)

DE GUZMAN: Meanwhile, the Payatas garbage dump continues to grow, and so are the number of people picking through the trash for a living. There are plans to close the dump for good before June, when monsoon rains will make climbing the mountain of garbage even more dangerous. The government says it can give people here a safer livelihood by enlisting them to go around Manila's houses collecting recyclables. For Living on Earth, I'm Orlando de Guzman in Manila.

(Glass bottles clink. Horns, voices calling)



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