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Toxic Tours - VIII: Mount Garbage

By Shailendra Yashwant

Every day, over 3,000 tonnes of garbage are added to Smoky Valley, a garbage dump on the outskirts of Quezon city in the Philippines. This huge grey mountain of rubbish forces us to examine how we deal with the growing waste problem resulting from modern-day lifestyles

Photograph by Shailendra Yashwant

It was at Payatas, Smoky Valley, in the Philippines, where I scaled my personal peak as a toxic tourist. This amazing landscape of over 70 ha consists of one single element -- garbage. Over 3,000 tonnes of urban domestic and industrial garbage are added every day to this festering wound on the outskirts of Quezon city, a suburb of Manila. It was atop this small mountain of garbage that I joined my friends from Greenpeace to place an extremely perceptive banner: "Next Time Try Recycling".

After a frenzied night spent at a Manila nightclub swinging to Filipino bands that belted out cover versions of the best of English pop and rock, I was suitably hung-over when confronted with the nightmarish sight of Smoky Valley.

The most striking thing about Smoky Valley is its unusually grey appearance. This, despite the fact that its main ingredients were originally colourful crackling plastic, tin, foil and other modern-day wrapping and packaging materials. The gooey stuff was organic matter of every sort, from kitchen waste to chemical waste.

The Payatas dump is located in the suburbs of Manila, 20 km from the city centre. It is called Smoky Valley -- after Smoky Mountain, the erstwhile biggest garbage dump in the Philippines and one of the three largest slums in the world. The Philippines government dismantled Smoky Mountain in 1995. The Payatas dumpsite is situated very near the La Mesa dam, the primary source of drinking water for metropolitan Manila. Untreated leachate from the dumpsite also flows into the nearby San Matao river.

It would be a cliché to say that Smoky Valley is the classic illustration of a modern-day lifestyle. A lifestyle that encourages excessive consumption and waste-generation. Every bit of wrapping, binding, packaging, covering and casing that you cheerfully tear away usually finds its way to landfills like these all over the world. Yes, all over the world, except in the northern countries from where they are usually sent to developing countries or hidden in deep-earth landfills.
They've even invented a term for this kind of waste management. It's called Nimby-ism -- Not In My Backyard.

Interestingly, Smoky Valley is home to some 92,000 scavengers (18,000 families), refugees from a devastated rural economy and ecology. Most of these scavengers collect re-usable and recyclable items such as paper, plastic, empty cans, bottles, aluminium, vinyl, etc, for the recycling industry. The average income per day is 200 pesos. It is not unusual to
see children as young as four years old join their families in the dump to scavenge or sort.

Two years ago, in June 2000, Smoky Valley was hit by a typhoon which dislodged a huge part of the garbage mountain, burying hundreds of scavengers. The tragedy once again focused attention on the issue of waste management and whether landfills were really the answer.

There are two established ways of dealing with waste -- landfills, or waste dumps, and incineration. Both these methods are environmentally unsound. While scientific evidence has proven that burning waste in incinerators releases dioxins, landfills lead to the release of untreated leachates into the groundwater, besides resulting in tragedies like the one at Smoky Valley.

The problem with landfills
Landfills take up a lot of valuable space that we cannot afford. Putting up landfills and open dumps that compete with the space demands of people to live and work in is an unacceptable proposition. Besides, the location of dumpsites near and around major urban areas often creates problems associated with this worst form of urban sprawl.

Garbage landfills leach out toxic substances that could contaminate water supplies, both surface and groundwater. Though the effects of such contamination may not be immediately evident, it could severely compromise both environmental and public health. Landfills are designed to serve as sinkholes for the refuse of the present generation. Thus, they unjustly become veritable graves for the resources that are valuable for re-use, and use by future generations.

The problem with incinerators
Incinerators are known to severely pollute the environment both locally and globally. Existing data shows that burning hazardous waste, even in "state-of-the-art" incinerators, leads to the release of dioxins, a human carcinogen. Once emitted into the environment, dioxins are transported over long distances along air and ocean currents. Dioxins are known to bio-accumulate in the fatty tissue of living beings, and also bio-magnify as they move up the food chain. They are associated with a wide range of health problems including altered sexual development, male and female reproductive problems, suppression of the immune system, diabetes, organ toxicity and hormonal disturbances.

Incinerator promoters would like people to believe that they can make garbage disappear. This is not true. Incinerators transform garbage into toxic ash and emit large volumes of toxic air and water. All incinerators also require a highly specialised hazardous-waste landfill to contain the toxic ash generated. Typically, an incinerator produces around one tonne of toxic ash for every three tonnes of garbage burned.

Waste reduction strategies
In recent years, two key activities have produced astonishing results with respect to waste reduction. First is the use of waste audits for industry. When local manufacturers are required to locate points in their processes where they generate waste, they come up with a number of areas where they could produce less waste and also save money.

Second is the use of "volume-based charging systems" for households and institutions. Simply put, the more waste you generate the more you pay. The city of Seattle has a monthly garbage fee which is based on the size of container used for the non-recyclable fraction of the waste stream. Other communities require a pre-paid coupon to be used on every bag of non-recyclable trash put out at the curb. These are often referred to as "pay-by-bag" schemes.

Re-use and repair centres
Many households and communities around the world have developed both formal and informal means of getting re-usable objects moving from one owner to the next. These include garage sales, yard sales, jumble sales, flea markets and thrift shops. While re-useables represent a
small fraction of the waste stream, it is a highly valuable one.

Composting and vermiculture
Composting can be run on almost any scale. It can be carried out in the backyard or basement (vermiculture), in the community or in a centralised facility. However, a key principle is to maintain tight control over the material entering the composting operation, because the ability to use the material could be compromised if unsuitable material, like non-source separated material, is composted.

After source separation, composting is the most important step in the alternatives scenario, because it is the organic material in landfills that causes so many problems. When organic waste rots underground it generates methane which contributes to global warming. Organic acids are formed which dissolve the metals in the waste stream and get into surface and groundwater. Organic waste also gives off awful odours. Thus, a key objective of composting is to keep organic waste out of the landfill.

The answer to the burgeoning waste problem lies neither in sophisticated landfills nor in expensive machines to burn garbage. Garbage is a social problem. Any solution must rely more on social intervention than technological invention. The government needs to invest money and effort into educating citizens about waste segregation, and setting up the infrastructure to promote segregation, waste reduction, recycling and re-use.

(Shailendra Yashwant is a senior photo-journalist who has worked with The Hindu, Outlook and The Independent. He is associated with the toxic campaign of Greenpeace and has been documenting the subcontinent's ecological problems for several years.)