Most of the things you’ve ever thrown away were not recycled, reused or even incinerated. They are still sitting somewhere in gigantic piles of trash. These piles are growing: the average Guatemalan throws out 20 times less than the average American, but it still amounts to 90 kilograms of trash each per year, only about five percent of which is recycled. The rest could be burned – a typical pile of garbage will shrink to a third of its original volume when incinerated – but that throws highly toxic dioxin particles into the air. In reality, garbage in Guatemala, as in landfills all over the world, just piles up, poisoning the water that trickles through it and the people who live around it. To some, however, a landfill is a vast, untapped resource.
Follow the 300 pioneering scavengers, or guajeros, into “The Mine,” Guatemala City’s main dump, and you’ll wade into a toxic river that runs through a canyon of trash. Look for scrap metal to sell, and jewelry. In summer, watch out for fires caused by gas from rotting food, and in winter beware of garbage landslides after heavy rain. The contaminated water may leave you blind or deaf, but it could be worth it: a guajero can make 150 quetzals (US$20) a day, almost the same as a taxi driver.
Worldwide, when it comes to landfill, nothing beats the hands-on approach. In Cairo, Egypt, recycling companies recycle 20 percent of the waste they collect, compared to the Zabbaleen, a minority settled in Cairo’s landfills, who process 80 percent. And in the Dharavi slum in central Mumbai, India, the garbage recycling industry is worth over US$600 million a year†. This is the new gold rush.
† Seventy percent of the world’s electronic waste is shipped to developing countries for processing. They will soon become e-waste’s greatest producers, however: by 2020, India will have increased its annual electronic garbage by 500%.
Trash: The Essentials
One fifth of hazardous materials in landfills are batteries. In the US, about two billion are thrown out every year. Find them. Many still have some power left, and could run a Kenyan juakali lamp, made from two batteries, a food can and a bulb.
Worldwide, 10.4 billion condoms are used every year. Exploit this untapped resource. Condoms are waterproof, elastic, durable and light, so use your imagination, like workers in Donguan, China, who were busted using them to make hair bands in 2007.
Every year in the UK alone 10 billion steel cans end up in landfills. Cans are great impromptu stoves or cooking pots, and not all are empty. About 1.2 billion tonnes of food are thrown away every year – a third of the world’s production.
Half of the weight of landfill is paper. The Worldwatch Institute estimates that almost 270,000 trees a day are flushed down toilets or dumped in landfills. Use it as an insulator for makeshift sleeping bags, or make a pair of snow boots.
Chances are, a quarter of what you find in your landfill will be plastic. Plastic bottles filled with water are used as light-diffusing skylights in Filipino slums, and a US company has even developed a way to turn plastic into diesel.