Visit to the Landfill

Over the years during my infrequent visits back to my hometown of San Jose, Occidental Mindoro, I have noticed that waste management seems to be an ongoing battle. As a child, I remember trash being dumped in empty lots in our subdivision; thick smoke consumed the air when the trash was set on fire. We knew of no alternative ways to dispose of our trash, nor of the environmental impact of burning residual waste.

In 2002, returning home after almost a decade of being away, I noticed an increase in population and, of course, trash. Our once gray-sand/dark pebble beach in Bubog was littered with plastic bags and disposable cups. Last year, when I visited briefly, nipa huts/cottages with videoke machines lined the shoreline. The trash was still not managed enough. Upon returning last month, I found more dilapidated cottages (now with inhabitants and their animals) but also new buildings were being developed: a 24-hour café, some bigger cottages that will be turned into giftshops. Still, trash seemed to have increased.

On this rainy morning, the day after we snorkeled the mostly pristine White Island, off the coast from San Jose, we drove some 30 minutes away from town to visit the municipal landfill, where the Global Village Association (GVA) education/feeding program was being implemented. The municipal officer who spearheaded the waste management program (under my uncle who was the mayor some years ago) drove us to the site.

The misty green mountains stood in contrast with red clay mud and flattened mounds of colored cellophane bags, hard plastics, broken bottles. There were a few human scavengers, as well as some pigs and goats.

We were told by the municipal officer that prior to their efforts to decrease the amount of residual waste (and subsequently, scavenger families who search through the rubbish for resalable materials), the mounds of trash and the flies that hovered were insurmountable, so much so that you couldn’t stand on it (like we were doing) or have a conversation without flies going into your mouth.

It was difficult to ignore the culmination of our globalized economy. Here I am in the middle of a beautiful, tropical mountain/farming area, but on the ground by my foot, there is a brightly imprinted plastic SIM card container, complete with the barcode and cellphone number. It’s hard to not think of our dismal future, when our current solutions have minimal impact and the negative influence of globalization continues to snowball.

I turned to my partner and said, “The only thing different about the U.S. is that we are able to pay enough money to get our trash shipped to developing countries.” (In some of these developing countries, scavengers must pay to rummage, exploiting the already exploited, the most impoverished.) It’s true. Our cozy lives are not affected by trash on the beach or on the sidewalks because our municipal taxes pay for trash collection.

After seeing the dump site, we went back to the GVA hut where a couple dozen children were awaiting their Saturday meal of rice, tomatoes, and dried fish after brief exercise to a popular dance song. (A bit ridiculous/sad from my perspective, but some enjoyed it.) Some of the younger kids looked somewhat malnourished, but there was still fire in their eyes. Some wore tattered clothes, while others had nicer ones. (We were told that the year before, there were many more children/elders who would come for these Saturday meals. The reason for the decrease, again, is the decrease in trash available for rummaging.)

During their meal, we discussed solutions: what alternative livelihood or trade can be offered for these families? The idea of using the trash to somehow make products was thrown around. Somehow connecting these people with nearby farms who hire part-time help during harvest season was another option. Emphasizing education seems to help, but the municipal officer said that most of these children were unable to finish high school because they would be forced to work in order to live.

It’s hard not to want to help improve the situations these children find themselves in. The municipal officer remarked on how he feels obligated to help develop San Jose because he grew up here. He could simply leave and find himself a comfortable job elsewhere, like Puerto Princesa in Palawan, where things are more developed.  I’m glad to see that there are people with good intentions and the will to try to improve San Jose.

After the dump site, we visited the eco-center/waste management center where they are making compost from the biodegradable waste. As I feel hopeful that these efforts are being implemented, that despite the money/power-hungry politicians that seem to run rampant in this country of my birth, there are sprinkles of good-hearted, optimistic, resilient Pinoys who are not afraid to be agents of change.


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