June 2001

I've loved dumps for a long time. In 1970, rummaging at the dump in Santa Cruz, California, I found a little ceramic owl which I gave to my mom for Christmas (Mom, 30 years later I can finally tell you the truth.) In recent years, at the dump transfer station in Seattle, I've discovered many fine treasures that I've used at my house. Traveling, I've visited several notable dumpsites around the world. My favorite was the Basurera in Guatemala City, featuring huge vultures and a large resident population of professional human scavengers. Two years ago in Manila I visited the infamous Smoky Mountain, reduced to a fraction of its former grandeur by bulldozers preparing an industrial park but still an interesting place.

Two weeks ago I finally made it out to the Cebu City Sanitary Landfill, located in Barangay Inayawan south of town. After a late start I arrived at noon, peak sun and damned hot. The dump is a huge, flat expanse of garbage that appears to be filled-in harbor. Following the arriving garbage trucks, it was easy to find the 100 or so scavengers at work. At first they were a little standoffish, as in "What the heck is this weird foreigner doing here?" After I hung out for an hour taking pictures and talking, they warmed up and got friendly in that wonderful Filipino way. One marriage proposal for the day... .not bad.

Today I returned for another visit. I brought along prints of the photos from last time, and my friend Gino. He's my new Cebu outing buddy: 63, originally from Italy but since 1962 a resident of Australia. He's spent part of every year in the Philippines since 1982, and speaks pretty fluent Bisayan.

There's high overcast, sun not so bright but it's still pretty hot. We follow the trucks in and start socializing. Lois from last time finds me and I give her two pictures of herself. Pretty soon we've got a crowd and I just hand over the whole stack of photos to let people sort through and maybe find their own. They seem to like them and so it's much easier today to get people to pose. Now I need to go back AGAIN with the next set of prints.

The work routine is pretty straightforward: chase the arriving garbage trucks as they back up to dump their loads, then dig in. There are enough trucks arriving to provide a new pile for every 10-15 people. Tools of the trade include: a hat for sun protection, long pants and long-sleeved shirt, rubber boots for those who can afford (but plenty are just wearing thongs, and I noticed some cut feet), a digging tool with a wooden handle and curved metal hook at the end, and basket or burlap bag to carry gleanings. Although everyone is essentially competing with the others, people seem to work very smoothly and I don't see any turf battles.

The primary targets are plastic bottles and cardboard, along with a few aluminum cans and other miscellaneous items. The bottled water industry is a great windfall for dump scavengers, and clear plastic water bottles constitute at least half of the collection stream. The garbage itself is different from what you see in the USA: not many refrigerators or couches, mostly packaging materials from small consumer products, old food, torn clothing and other small miscellaneous junk. Last time there was a whole truckload of medical waste, including many syringes and bloody bandages; the scavengers really tore into it because of the huge quantity of clear plastic (IV bottles, plastic tubing, etc.) It's important to be careful walking around because of all the sharp objects in the garbage.

The scavengers say they earn from 80 to 200 pesos per day (US $1.60 to $4.00), not bad wages for Cebu but working conditions leave a little to be desired (by comparison, store clerks earn around 150 pesos per day, but in a much safer/more comfortable environment).

To my eyes, scavenging at the dump is employment of last resort. Yet not surprisingly, many people here say they've been doing it for years or even decades. One guy I talked with today said he graduated from college in commerce, but lately hasn't been able to find a regular job, so here he is.

After an hour we've had enough, so Gino and I hop a jeepney back to town. Once again I reflect "There but for the grace of God go I."

Ain't capitalism wonderful?

Click here to see DumpPhotos

My Philippine Webpages Homepage