Thinking green, by Caitlin

Thoughts and ideas on environmental topics from Caitlin Howlett, editor of Green Lifestyle.

A smokey mountain of waste


Credit: Elizabeth Mullan

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By Caitlin Howlett, G writer

Underfoot it’s as though I’m sinking into fresh snow, smoke stings my eyes, and there’s a familiar stench. The ground is spongy from several metres of compressed plastic; the smoke is toxic from the burning of treated wood to make charcoal; and the stink is like that of any dump site, except that it is mixed with the smell of the human lifestyle – cooking, morning breath and human faeces.

I’m at Smokey Mountain II, the biggest active waste site in Manila, the Philippines. Its namesake, Smokey Mountain One was bulldozed in 1995 due to its pitiful and unsafe living conditions. I squint through the smoke at old Smokey Mountain; a six-storey high mountain of rubbish now covered in patches of grass, where 20,000 people found their livelihoods and their homes for three decades.

The site where I now stand is completely man-made. It used to be part of Manila Bay, but years of rubbish and silt have piled up to create new land where the inhabitants now live. In one of the cul-de-sacs, planks of wood have been lain out to walk across thick, black, rotting mud. Here in this depression, it’s easy to imagine that this place was once covered in the sour water of Manila Bay.

Entire families – in fact generations – make between $1 and $4.50 per day collecting recycling from freshly-dumped garbage from Manila. An important livelihood here is charcoal, which is made by slowly burning old toxic-laden wooden furniture covered in dirt in an anaerobic environment (without air). This is how Smokey Mountain got its name, not because it sounds like an idyllic holiday ranch. Even Smokey Mountain I still smokes in the distance.

We walk through the 'streets', which are more like dirt roads, black with fine dust and rubbish, past houses made from off cuts of wood, scraps of metal and old car parts. Converted tricycles make a bedroom for two kids. Old bedsprings serve as fences and security doors. A shop attendant is cooking skewers on a BBQ made from old car tyres. The sides of the grill are curved – it looks like it was taken from the inside of an old refrigerator. This really is a creative place, where ingenuity is a survival skill and new inventions are born.

I respect that the people who live here are resourceful, but it’s not through choice that they are exposed to dangerous and toxic waste everyday. It’s incredible to see that through necessity, people can become such experts on what can and can’t be recycled, or if it can’t be, they’ll find a use for it. It's the exact opposite of many people I know in Australia who have no need, and therefore no desire, to make an effort to reuse or recycle.

We approach the swirling, rancid soup of the newly-shaped bay. The bloated carcass of a pig is being poached in the centre of a foaming brown whirlpool. Workers are waist deep in the water, cleaning the dirt off plastic bags. In a methodical rhythm, thin layer after thin layer of wet plastic is laid onto a huge pallet. For 10 kg of clean plastic bags, these workers will get 100 pesos (just over $2), and about 50 recycled plastic 1-litre bottles will be made.

Blue trucks pull up to dump piles of rubbish onto a boat before it also sets off to dump its load at another site. By this stage, most of the leftover waste is supposed to be biodegradable, but it's hard to imagine that all the recyclables could be salvaged. The last people in the Smokey Mountain ‘recycling hierarchy chain’ are those that sort through the ‘compost’ on these barges. It’s a race against the clock – nimble teens fumble on top of the moving trucks desperately trying to get recyclables out before the tray is tilted onto the boats.

The main qualm I have is when wealthier people and wealthier companies don’t manage their waste properly, leaving people such as those from Smokey Mountain to rummage through rubbish. In 1996, Greenpeace found that the Philippines was a destination for toxic waste such as batteries from other countries under the guise of recycling. Just a few months ago, Dateline exposed that Australia has been sending e-Waste to Ghana in Africa, prompting a Government inquiry into the matter, which is still being resolved.

Another aspect, however, is that dumpsites like Smokey Mountain provide an important livelihood for people in poverty. If waste was managed properly, then how would these people feed their families?

The problem also lies with individuals who expect this last point of resource recovery to occur, taking it for granted, or not taking responsibility for their waste. A plastic bottle can stay in landfill for 1000 years, slowly leaching chemicals into the soil. In Australia, there’s no reason why there shouldn’t be incentives for people to recycle, such as through a National Container Deposits Scheme, which would help prevent people throwing recyclables into the bin in the first place.

If you’re lucky enough to have your waste looked after for you, spare a thought for the families at Smokey Mountain II. Be grateful for the system that you have, and while there’s always room for improvement, it shouldn’t be taken for granted.

Caitlin visited Smoky Mountain II during her time working as a volunteer with AusAID in the Philippines last year.