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VOL. VI   NO. 3

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  E A R T H W A T C H      M Y    G A R B A G E    A N D    I

MY GARBAGE trail started at our dining table, where what was left uneaten, including plastic wrappers, almost automatically became garbage. Partly as a result of this project, I did some careful monitoring of what actually gets thrown out as trash and ended up changing some of our household's disposal habits. But even after the composting of vegetable and fruit peelings, and recycling of paper, we still had waste. Much of it was plastic packaging.

Our hasty conclusion was that the concept of zero waste was a fantasy. The matrons who championed this cause often demonstrated it from the spacious confines of their homes or subdivisions. Yet most urban dwellers have little space to wash and dry plastic bags for reuse or conversion into pillow stuffing or handicrafts, or for storing cans, bottles and the other detritus of urban living.

The only way for most ordinary people to avoid throwing out plastic packaging was to avoid buying it in the first place. Maybe that was the real key to zero waste -- using bayongs or straw bags rather than plastic bags for food and grocery buying, purchasing supplies in bulk in cooperation with others, and so forth. It would entail some inconvenience, of course, and that's the problem.

Convenience is one of the goals of modern life. Convenience is also the whole point of plastic. Convenience saves time for other activities, say, watching TV. Therefore, the more we buy and throw away things wrapped in plastic has become a measure of success and adaptation in the modern world. True zero waste would require a sweeping change in lifestyle, attitude, and public policy.

In any case, my household still puts a premium on some conveniences, judging from all the plastic packaging in our trash. Early next morning, after delivering our plastic bags of garbage to our neighborhood pick-up point, I waited for the garbage truck. Just as it arrived, someone came with her own plastic bag. Something was alive in it, rustling the bag. I looked in and saw two hungry meowing kittens - the offspring of an unwanted stray, according to the maid caught holding the bag ("My employer ordered me to throw them.") The truck's pahinantes (helpers) refused to take it. "They're so pitiful," one said. But they took everything else.

Along with the advent of modern conveniences like plastic packaging have come changes in our idea of what constitutes waste. Within my family, some still snicker about my late grandfather saving even pieces of string and old buttons, as if this were a quaint but useless hobby. He was simply a product of his time, when little was thrown away, especially during the war years.

Today, apparently, anything in excess can be considered waste, to be thrown out with the chicken bones and broken toys. Even something alive and pitiful like famished kittens.

Egay and I learned it could get worse. At the open dumpsites we visited, scavengers told us about dead babies found amid the punctured basketballs, used soap packages, and empty corn chip bags. We were shown one central burial site where scavengers had the decency to place these anonymous souls-turned-garbage.

IT IS SAID that the native Tagalogs had no word for garbage. Basura is a Spanish word. The idea was introduced by foreigners, although modern Filipinos have by now broadened its meaning to include so many things that used to be reused, recycled or at least kept alive.

In the old days, as it was in all societies, almost all material things moved within a sustainable "closed" system. Resembling the natural ecology, virtually nothing was wasted in human communities. Whatever was organic in the household was returned to the earth, often through the digestive systems of animals. Outgrown clothing was handed down to other members of the family. Little came in disposable packaging. Tin cans and rubber were reused or recycled in many ways. For such a system, the sorting of things within the household came naturally. There was no need for a centralized garbage collection system.

For much of society today, waste moves in an "open system." Little is returned to the earth, if you don't include landfills where the organic and inorganic mix haphazardly. Rather than the cyclical route of natural matter, waste these days follows a linear route from household to truck to transfer station to dump site or landfill where it stays indefinitely - until the garbage is washed away by rain or collapses and becomes a graveyard for unlucky trash pickers. Most people though seem to assume the garbage simply disappears into a black hole once it is picked up by the basura trucks.

Enroute to Payatas on board the dump side of a dump truck, Egay interviewed pahinantes hanging by the sides of their vehicles. Garbage collection seemed to be an exhausting but relatively lucrative occupation. There was treasure in garbage, and the workers on board those trucks had the first crack. They knew that garbage was their only connection to society's rich and famous and the truck crews competed fiercely against each other to corner those routes through well-to-do neighborhoods. "You'd get a lot there," said one 18-year-old garbage worker.

In those households that can afford to throw away a lot, the sorting of objects has been trashed.

Everything considered waste ends up in the same common receptacle. As soon as these are loaded onto the truck, the sorting process begins. The workers onboard seem to know instinctively what could be of value and immediately set those aside even as they are enroute to the next house. On one truck I boarded, a pahinante found a small dirty doll discarded by one of my neighbors. He put it in a bag. "A gift for my daughter," he said.

Entering Payatas, agile boys jump into the garbage in the trucks from the rooftops of shacks and start another stage of sorting. Large objects like cardboard boxes are grabbed at, cans and bottles are pounced on, barely touched food scraps are saved. As the trucks unload their cargo and add to Payatas's mountain of trash, scavengers swarm over it and the third stage of sorting begins. An entire industry has grown around this sorting activity. Buyers of gold, scrap metal, paper, cans, bottles, even expired light bulbs have set up operations in and around the dumpsite.

Large open dumpsites like Payatas are actually vast recycling and reuse centers where armies of scavengers pick through tons of material for whatever is of any value. I saw one man sporting a platinum wedding ring found in the refuse. Either it was lost accidentally, or someone must have been quite disgusted about his marriage.

By ensuring that much of what others considered waste was brought back into a "closed system" of use and reuse, scavengers could be viewed as engaged in an ecological activity. The problem is the burden of sorting is done at the end of the line amid huge dangerous piles of combustible material. The health hazards to anyone living in such an environment are obvious to outsiders. Some children walk in the garbage barefoot and unmindful of the flies they no longer bother to wave away. The stench would seem to be the least of the inconveniences there, yet it assails the nostrils upon first encounter. And it stays on your body even after a bath and change of clothes.

Payatas has become the country's new symbol of poverty. But like other dumps, it is more complex than typical urban poor communities. Payatas is at the confluence of poverty and wealth, greed and desperation, where the symptoms of the nation's social injustices converge like flies to an open wound.

Large open dumpsites attract the nation's poorest of the poor. It is often their first destination in the big city. Many scavengers we spoke to came from places like Masbate, where the fishing waters have emptied of fish and the land is fenced off by large ranches. They become refugees driven off their island by the increasing barrenness of nature and lack of access to arable soil. In the big city, they find themselves in another ecological disaster zone, a sea of filth where they wade eagerly in search of that morsel, from a gold chain or just the more common can or bottle. Here, they can earn enough to scrape by, from the value they cull from others' waste.

Many people here gave up the tranquility of rural life, with its clear streams and fresh air, but where most are so poor they have little to eat, much less produce any garbage. In the big city, they live in it. One can't help thinking that it must really be difficult where they came from for them to prefer to live like this.

But others have struck it rich here, specifically the trucking contractors. Despite the pressure to close it down, the billions made in Payatas by these contractors and the thousands of livelihoods provided to the uneducated landless are a powerful force against closure.

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