Thinking About Thinking

The Trash Economy

Posted in Philosophy, Pop Culture by larrycheng on June 14, 2012

They say that one man’s trash is another man’s treasure.  Unfortunately, this statement is more reality than idiom for a large swath of the global poor that find their daily sustenance in city dumps.  Perhaps the only shortcoming of this statement is that it leaves out the women and children that also scavenge city dumps around the world.  Alas, city dumps are brutally equal opportunity.

The city dump pictured above (June 2012) is in Guatemala City.  The specs in the picture that look like people, are in fact people.  They are referred to as scavengers in the local community.  There are 13,000 of them that live in 16 slum communities surrounding the dump.   Since the dump is located at the bottom of a canyon, it requires at least an hour walk down the canyon to get there.  The people in this community are scavenging for recyclables that they can bundle and sell.  On a typical day, they will work 14 hours and might earn $3 to $6 for the materials they collect.  That’s before they pay a truck driver $2-$3 to drive their collections out of the dump.  Mondays are typically good days because there’s more trash to sort through from the weekend.  They risk themselves daily against the garbage trucks whose drivers have learned to ignore their presence.  It is common for people to get run over or lose limbs.  The dump has a preponderance of children – who are working.  Many parents are forced to trade the long-term value of education for the near-term necessity of income.  If you ask a child in this dump what they want to be when they grow up, they will say truck driver.  For what better job can there be than the one who they pay $2-$3 to every day?  This is the daily reality for some of the poor in Guatemala City.

Sadly, poverty looks the same around the world.  The city dump pictured below (April 2012) is in Cebu, Philippines.  Children are born in this dump.  Umbilical cords are cut with sticks.  Shelters are built out of trash on the worthless land surrounding the dump.  Proximity matters to have fast access to prized trash.  Drug abuse and alcoholism are common to blunt the full and perverse effect of the daily routine.  The cycle repeats, for generations.

Thankfully, there are people who have dedicated their lives to care for the people in these dumpsite slum communities.  In Guatemala City, it’s Potter’s House.  In Cebu, it’s Grace Community Empowerment.  In both cases, despite the dumpsite being a patently dangerous place, the staff members for these organizations are protected by the very people they serve.  Walking around with them in the chaos of a dump, you would actually feel strangely safe.  These organizations have had a profound impact on the lives of those they have served.  They have helped parents create businesses.  They have enabled children to go to school.  They have treated wounds and delivered babies.  They have listened and cared.  But, probably most important of all, they have treated a community of scavengers, not like scavengers at all, but with the decency, love, and respect that all human beings deserve.  For that alone may be the starting point for a brighter future.

10 Responses

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  1. Ben Sears said, on June 15, 2012 at 10:10 pm


    Very kind of you to write about the plight of scavengers and slum dwellers in Guatemala and the Phillippines.

    Since I find it unlikely that you might highlight such a topic — on a personal blog, at that — without personally helping to address this problem, could you describe your efforts in this arena?

    Many thanks

    • larrycheng said, on June 16, 2012 at 12:54 pm

      Ben, I’d rather highlight the people who are really working to solve the problem like Potter’s House and Grace Community Empowerment. Any efforts I make around this issue wouldn’t in any way compare to the daily effort that is put out by the individuals serving on the ground.

      • Ben Sears said, on June 16, 2012 at 2:26 pm

        Larry, in that case, how can you be certain that Potter’s House, Grace Community Empowerment and others are truly solving the problem?

        I certainly don’t mean to dismiss their well-intentioned contributions…but in my experience, I’ve seen firsthand that well-intentioned Westerners donating funds and time fail to make a lasting impact as they don’t truly understand the cultures in underdeveloped markets.

        The Stanford SEED Program has conducted some insightful research in this area:

      • larrycheng said, on June 16, 2012 at 9:28 pm

        Ben, I think your critique is fair which is why I’d rather emphasize what local organizations are doing that understand the problem far better than I do. Based on what I’ve seen, I think both organizations are addressing the needs of the communities they serve to the best of their ability. I do think the overall problem – which is really a fundamental poverty issue – is beyond the scope of either organization. I don’t know if any single organization is in a position to fundamentally solve the root causes of poverty as it gets into issues of government, politics, culture, law, etc. But, in my mind, even if there are organizations not addressing the root cause, I’m still thankful for these organizations if they’re just helping the people impacted.

  2. Philippines said, on June 16, 2012 at 7:34 am

    Philippines has had some success with scavengers being relocated but relocation without jobs will not entail the long term sustainability. Many people return to their old dwelling at dump sites as they need to make a living.

    • larrycheng said, on June 16, 2012 at 12:48 pm

      That actually makes sense and isn’t a surprise. Without the dumpsite, these people may not have access to an income stream. The problem is clearly not just about location, but a much broader one than that.

  3. Hodan Ibrahim said, on September 17, 2012 at 1:21 pm

    Reblogged this on Hodan Ibrahim.

  4. Guat’s Up? – christinethinn said, on February 2, 2016 at 5:12 pm

    […] Guatemala City dumpsite. I did not take this photo. I retrieved it from: […]

  5. […] Guatemala City dumpsite. I did not take this photo. I retrieved it from: […]

  6. […] of the Guatemala City garbage dump from an excellent blog about the world’s trash economy. We couldn’t bring our cameras to the overlook, so as not to attract […]

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