On dumpster diving, an avalanche of trash and a foiled trash war
During the summer months of 2020, in a northern Colorado college town in the midst of the pandemic, my husband and I started an unconventional family operation: selling trash. The students had left. Some have returned to their home countries, many have graduated and ditched their chipboard furniture, their hot beer coolers, their cooking utensils, their unopened cans, their sports equipment and, to my great surprise, several bikes. I will never recover from the cognitive dissonance of seeing such objects waiting for trash collection in middle-class neighborhoods, or piled up against dumpsters in apartment complexes. When I moved to the United States, I saw untouched sofas on the sidewalks and wondered what they were doing there. It wasn’t long before I learned they were on hold for bulk pickup. What struck me as a culture shock was not what Americans treasured, but what they considered trash.
Gabriel and I started collecting some of these unwanted items — appliances, dressers, bedside tables, bicycles — sanitizing them and selling them online, mostly to college students moving into town. Within a few months, we earned enough to cover half the rent. While I was somewhat shocked to find abandoned bikes, Gabriel was not. He worked for a university in Texas and said that every moving season, graduates and dropouts left their bikes still chained to stands around campus.
In the Philippines, in January of the same year, the Court of Quezon City (QC) issued the decision finding the government of QC guilty of gross negligence in the Payatas dump tragedy, which occurred in July 2000. I was in high school when more than 200 people were buried alive in a “garbage slide” after days of torrential rain. The victims were rural migrants who had moved to the country’s largest landfill to collect salable recyclables, such as plastics and scrap metal. The area at the foot of the trash mountain, named Lupang Pangako (Land of Promise), was home to some 3,000 informal settlers.
Local news editorials communicated disgust that our fellow citizens suffered such a horrific death. How could such a thing happen so close to home? It was hard to imagine the extent of poverty that thousands of people were going through, so that leaving their provinces to settle at the foot of a gargantuan pile of rubbish was somehow more viable than staying where they were. were. There was also the discomfiture that the victims were buried in our QC bin.
Growing up in Quebec, we saw “scavengers” roaming our neighborhood. They would shout “diyaryo, bote(newspapers, bottles), to indicate what they collected while pushing rickety wooden carts which, in addition to their livelihood, sometimes transported their children. Belonging to an upper-middle-income family provided my own security against such a fate, even though my vision of abject poverty remained clear in my socio-economic refuge. Misery formed the undercurrents of tradition that our elders used to scare the young. There were stories about the yayas (nannies) who kidnapped children from wealthy families; the teenage bullies who lured private school boys from gambling cafes in the slums; the human-trafficking taxi drivers who preyed on girls after curfew.
Things changed when I emigrated to the United States. Extremely poor people – a significantly smaller part of the general population – have become invisible, neither actively feared nor pitied. When I worked in healthcare facilities in Texas, my patients were described as “poor” but wore designer sneakers and lived in air-conditioned, carpeted apartments. In college, white classmates loudly lamented their “poverty” and college loans, but they took out-of-state ski trips to the mountains. Life has become abundant. Many of the adult patients I cared for at work actually suffered from lifestyle-related illnesses. excess.
Residing in a wealthy empire, I felt increasingly removed from my memories of roving thieves and classist horror stories of the Global South. My sense of outrage was reignited in 2019, when Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte made international headlines — this time not for the state-sponsored massacres. Duterte threatened to “declare war” on Canada. Years earlier, a private company based in Canada dropped off more than a hundred shipping containers, supposedly carrying ‘recyclable plastics’, but were actually filled with household trash, like kitchen scraps and adult diapers. soiled.
It was appalling that such a developed nation could think of no better solution for its waste than to dump it on an economically disadvantaged archipelago with a significantly smaller collective land mass. About 26 containers of rubbish had already been deposited in a landfill in Tarlac. Most of Canada’s garbage rested and rotted in Manila. For the first and only time, I found myself supporting the President of the Philippines and thinking, “No, he doesn’t mean he’s literally will declare war. The “them”, who were vulnerable, exploited and literally being buried under the weight of the waste of the world, has become “we”. I followed the news for several months until its somewhat happy ending: 69 of the scrap ships were finally repatriated to the outskirts of Vancouver.
The world cannot keep pace with human creation of so much waste. It’s January 2022 as of this writing, and as fresh grads once again leave this college town, they’re leaving behind the “disposable” items that once scarred their lives as debt-ridden students. In a parking lot, I see large white rectangles sticking out of dumpsters, soaked with melting snow—mattresses treated as disposable, like dirty sponges. The evidence that carbon dioxide emissions are driven more by overconsumption in the West, as opposed to population growth in poorer parts of the globe, is clear and obvious. Yet it is people in developing countries like mine who are most likely to suffer the catastrophic consequences of climate change and environmental destruction. You don’t have to be terribly poor to feel the effects of an increasingly hot Earth. During typhoon season when I was a child, my siblings and I waited on the second floor of our house while the bottom floor was flooded. Every year the water came up the steps, until my family finally moved to a high house.
I think back to the peak of pandemic shutdowns in mid-2020. From her apartment in Quebec, my sister mentioned the difficulty of getting a donated bike for the caretaker at the animal shelter where she volunteered. Public transport was limited, leaving many people without the means to get to work and support their homes. During our video calls, my family in the Philippines expressed their bewilderment and fascination when they heard about the goods that Gabriel and I had salvaged from the bins of fraternity and sorority houses, including a weight bench, a mini-fridge, an electric fireplace – each piece selling for no less than $60 on Facebook Marketplace.
“We also found two other bikes,” I told my relatives. It was such a shame not to be able to send one back. Here the children throw the bikes. – Rappler.com
Irene Carolina Sarmiento is the author of two illustrated children’s books, Spinning and Tabon Girl, both published by Anvil. Her stories have won awards from the Palanca Memorial Foundation, the Philippines Free Press, the Philippine Graphic/Fiction Awards, and Stories to Change the World. She is an occupational therapist and holds a master’s degree in applied cognition and neuroscience.