Solid waste disposal is not an issue that most people in the world think of on a daily basis. We shop. We eat. We throw away and in some instances, compost and recycle. Then, we go shop some more… But in many parts of the world, solid waste disposal is not part of the municipal or city infrastructure. Instead, these places often have loosely organized services provided by private individuals or small multi-generational family businesses. The dumps where this garbage lands are usually unorganized, unsafe, and unbelievable.
Guatemala is no exception. Central America’s largest garbage dump, the notorious “El Basurero de El Trébol” is located in Guatemala City. It has been the site of numerous toxic fires that have been hard to extinguish. There have been instances where sinkholes have swallowed whole trucks (and their drivers), mountains of garbage have collapsed on workers who were never seen again and daily environmental/work conditions cause frequent health problems and injuries. Despite this, an estimated 7,000 people, waste pickers referred to locally as “guajeros”, continue to work at the massive site, collecting plastic bottles, cans, paper, cardboard and metals, that they sell to recyclers. From other people’s trash, they make a living and support thousands of families. But the garbage dump is poorly managed and despite recent efforts by the city, it remains a dangerous and difficult place to make a living.
Nearby, there is another place. A managed landfill that has been quietly working to do things in a better way. Mandated by the government of Guatemala in 1996, AMSA is an organization with the overall goal of restoring and protecting the watershed basin of nearby Lake Amatitlan. The “Km 22″* landfill is a key part of this project and the approximately 130 guajeros who work at the site are valued, respected and are essential to the system. Not only do they remove waste that would otherwise enter the landfill they also benefit from social services that are provided by the organization. While many in Guatemalan society look down on the guajeros, here they are seen as an asset, essential workers that contribute to the environmental goals of AMSA by prolonging the life of the landfill. They remove approximately 6% of the solid waste that arrives at the site, an estimated 136 tons of 820 tons, daily. Workers are divided into two groups and work three alternating days a week at the site.
* So designated as this is the distance marker for the road to the Pacific Ocean.
Most workers specialize in collecting certain types of recyclables but often find other usable items as well. Clothes, jewelry and even live animals are regularly discovered in the midst of the trash. Other unknown substances are also brought to the site on a regular basis. The guajeros, with little protection or knowledge of what they’re handling, assist with the disposal regardless.
Old and young, all seem to be happy to be here. In the words of one of the long time waste pickers, “I feel blessed by God to have this place, it has provided for my family, has provided us with a home and food. This is a sacred place.”
While AMSA serves as a model project for Guatemala and the Central American region, they seek to do more. The funds they receive from the national government don’t cover all they want to do. Future development plans include a composting facility, a sorting building for recycling, and expansion of the project to other locales. This landfill is scheduled to close in a few years, which means the future employment of the guajeros is uncertain. They will have to transition into different jobs / or be employed by the facility in some other way. But for the moment, everyone I spoke to, without exception, was grateful to be working at the landfill where they are treated with dignity and they are deeply proud of the work they do.
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