A few years ago I started to work on a project about the environmental and social effects of the waste. The idea was part of a bigger plan, to create a body of work able to criticise the widespread consumerism in nowadays society.
My first idea was to document and expose the ecological damages, visiting the places in the world that most has been affected by the waste pollution. In the year 2016 I visited Guiyu in the south of China, a small Cantonese village that became the world’s capital of electronic waste. In Guiyu I visited the recycling centres where electronics from all over the world are teared apart to collect valuable materials. Copper and other metals or electronic chips are collected and re-sold to the nearby city of Shenzhen. The rest of the waste: plastic, led, silicon are dumped or burned around the town by sickly workers. This town, surrounded by strawberry fields and illegal dumpsters, has become one of the symbols of the ecological disasters caused by a hysterical chase for wealth and profit.
In Guiyu I was still looking for the same visual elements that I used for the Food Waste project in Finland. I wanted to show the amount of materials, to extract it from the story to give the viewer the proportion of the issue. Those photographs show landscapes of electronics in their unreal beauty, without human presence.
For my next step I decided to visit one of the most industrialised and populated area in the world: the Bangalore valley in South India. Here, the project started to shift to a new concept, more focused on the role of the people and their involvement with the waste issue. In India I documented the work of the waste pickers and their daily struggle to survive in a fast changing society. Their work in the past was essentially to collect trash from the streets and to sell some of the found materials, such as plastic or cardboard, to recycling centres. Nowadays things are (slowly) changing, waste pickers and recyclers started to collaborate and create small associations to defend their working rights. Something unthinkable a few years ago, when people who was working with trash was highly discriminated and stigmatised. But the alarming ecological situation has partly changed the attitude towards who provides some sort of services to ”clean” the city. Exactly what happened to a group of women that, helped by a local Organisation, started to provide a door-to-door organic waste collection that is revolutionising the waste collection system of the city. In just a couple of years this group of former waste pickers has managed to create an highly organised system to collect, transport and recycle huge quantity of waste. Nowadays the group is even backed by a group of researchers that try to find ways to recycle this particular type of waste. In the beginning of the last year they started to produce and sell compost made with organic food waste and recently they started to produce eatable mushrooms from it. The group is nowadays so popular that many street waste pickers are joining the group to work in this sector.
Although the ecological and social situation in India is still tragic in many ways, the story of those women inspired many people (me included) to develop new ideas and strategies to counterattack issues of poverty, pollution and social discrimination.
Considering my experience in India I decided to continue the project to give voice to who is actively fighting to make a better future for themselves and their communities. In 2017 I visited the state of Oaxaca in the south of Mexico. In this area, famous for it’s unions and civil rights movements, the ”Pepenadores” (scavenger in Mexican Spanish) have started to organise and work together. Instead of collecting waste to recycle for themselves, competing with each other and sell to unscrupulous businessman for a very small profit, many Pepenadores started to create ecological appealing projects for the municipalities. Offering professional strategies and manpower to segregate and recycle the waste. In some areas of the Oaxaca State their work was so effective that the municipality started to pay them on an hourly based salary, payed mostly with the profits of the recycled waste. The money helped also to build new infrastructures and better facilities for the workers and to create a new image of the Pepenador.
Abolishing the ”piece work” based salary and creating a stable salary system has improved the life of many workers and gave a good changing incentive to many others in the rest of the countries.
FIRST PART: GUIYU, CHINA
SECOND PART: BANGALORE, INDIA
Bangalore, often referred as the Silicon Valley of India, is one of the wealthiest and fastest growing megalopolis of India. With a population of almost ten millions inhabitants and a continuously expanding size, it is estimated that the city produces 2.4 millions tons of waste per year. The waste management municipal plan isn’t efficient enough to handle these amounts of material and most of the waste collection is done by private people who live on recycle.
Those independent workers managed to make Bangalore one of the cleanest cities in India. But their work is still far to be recognised and respected. Most of the people working with waste are facing great discriminations and prejudices. Most of those workers live in slums in precarious conditions and some are even forced to live on open waste landfills to not lose their jobs. Exploited by the “middleman” (the ones who buy the recyclable waste), the waste pickers spend 8 to 10 hours a day collecting waste for a few rupees. Completely unrecognised by the city administration and by the institutions, many of them are forced to continuously move from one part to another of the city to live and work in dignity.
PART 3: OAXACA, MEXICO
Pepenadores comes from the word in Náhuatl language: “pepena”, which means “to pick (from the ground)”. The term has been used in Mexico to identify people that work picking up waste or recyclers.
Oaxaca, march 2017
Early in the morning Selma and Abril come to pick me up in the center of Oaxaca City. It’s still dark and I can barely see them from my window. Selma and Abril work for Sikanda, an organization that, between other projects, support some of the families of the Pepenadores. We leave early to go to visit a family that lives in the neighborhood of Zaachila, a huge shantytown built around the biggest “basurero” (waste landfill) of Oaxaca. This family, like everyone else in the area, is “historically” connected with the landfill but at the moment none of the family members have been working there. The father of the family Armando, his wife Marcelina and their four sons live in a shaped-tinplate shack without running water. Armando works as a construction worker and Marcelina stays home with the children. We spend the morning with the family eating breakfast and talking about the conditions in which the people of Zaachila live. When the father leaves to go to work, we walk the children to school, just in time to have a look at the awaking neighborhood.
The basurero stands majestic in the middle of the town, surrounded by hundreds of little shacks. It is incredible that such a giant mountain of trash releases almost no smell (or maybe the time to adapt to the smell is very fast) into the surroundings. From the windows of the “Escuela Telesecundaria” one of the schools of Zaachila, the mountain stands in all its impressive ugliness, like a peak of dirt destroying an otherwise wonderful landscape. The students of the Telepsecundaria see this landscape every day, from the moment they leave home to school, since when they sit listening to the video recorded lesson in their classrooms.
Entering the basurero has become lately very difficult. Workers run up and down of the mountain day and night, picking the recyclable from a wobbly, slimy ground that produces unhealthy and stinky liquids and odors. The workers here collect for themselves and sell back the valuable materials to who has the power to recycle and re-sell. This creates competition and discontent between the pepenadores that lately have been fighting between each other for any sort of issues. From their relation with the middlemen (buyers), to the working turns and place everything has become matter of argument and sometimes fights. This unstable situation has also spoiled the relationship with organizations like Sikanda and gave more power to the middlemen, who have taken advantage of the disunity of the workers, to impose their rules and prices.
A few days later I find somebody willing to take me inside. Irma, is a pepenadora that together with her husband, every day walks up and down to bring material to her little recycle center placed on the side of the mountain. When we start our visit she walks on the path of the mountain of trash so fast that I have to ask her to slow down. Together we climb to the top, have a look at the panorama and start descends on the opposite cliff. On this side a group of 10-20 pepenadores are “picking” material walking around a sort of tractor that continuously moves the waste. Irma suggests me to stay on the side, to not go close to the workers and to take pictures fast. She seems stressed and some of the workers start to give us bad looks. Many of the pepenadores are still furious about an article that appeared on a local newspaper where they were depicted in a negative way. Some others just don’t want to be involved in any possible activity that might damage their relationship with the middlemen, who are obviously not interested in publicity. We walk back to the top of the cliff; the air is hot and unbreathable. I turn and look down. I see men, dogs and birds moving and fighting into a sea of plastic and dirt.
The road between Oaxaca city and Huajuapan the Leòn is a 3 hours journey into the beauty of the Mexican countryside. Confused by the loud sound of the tv, omnipresent inside every Mexican bus, I watch the landscape slowly changing from the window imagining the life of the people living on those beautiful valleys. In Huajuapan I have been invited to visit the “Citreso” (“Centro Integral de tratamiento de Residuos Sólidos”: a landfill equipped with machineries) and to document the activities of the workers. Here the situation is very different than in Oaxaca, thanks to the help of Sikanda, the workers have been equipped with uniforms, they have automated moving belts where to segregate part of the waste, and most important: a roof to protect them from the sun when they work on the moving belts. Despite those improvements the work is still very hard, part of the work is to hand pick recyclable materials under the sun and transport the huge sacks to the trucks loading area. Here in Huajuapan the workers work together, the material is collected and sold collectively and the proceeds are divided and paid as salary to the workers. The atmosphere in the Citreso is usually relaxed and jovial and many of the workers agree to invite me to their homes after work. The work is divided into turns in which the pepenadores have to handpick the waste, segregate materials from the moving belt and select what is going to be sent to the recycling centers.
After the work we all jump into one of the trucks used for the recyclable collection and we visit some of the families. Some of those families have many people employed into the landfill, some have been here since many years while some just started. The Salazar family has a few generations working with the waste. The grandmother of the family is the oldest worker in the Citreso, she still works on full length shifts despite her age together with her daughter and son in law. Thanks to this facility, many have been able to live a decent life and the situation seems getting better. Ana, one of youngest workers bought a scooter to go to work and she is planning to buy a car soon. She lives on a pretty concrete house together with her mom, sister, dog and five cats. She tells me that she likes the work and the atmosphere between the workers. She seems secure in herself and emancipated, a sign that the stigma associated with working with waste is maybe disappearing in this area.
The basurero of San Lorenzo Cacaotepec is located in the middle of a valley surrounded by beautiful hills. The town is relatively small and the amount of waste produced is incomparable to the amount produced in Oaxaca City. The administration of the San Lorenzo has worked hard to create a system where the workers are paid a fair salary and the landfill is organized and effective. This is considered one of the excellences in terms of organization and capacity of recycle in the Oaxaca State. Here the salary is paid from the municipality, which has firstly given an economical stability to the workers and has also helped to break stereotypes and stigmas towards this profession.
The idea that waste can be source of profitable thought is a double-edged sword. Recycle is definitely the most important action against waste pollution but it is important that the amount of waste is firstly reduced in our society. To exploit recycle as a source of income instead of using it as a weapon to fight pollution goes against the fact that consumerism and easy profit are the first cause of waste pollution and environmental issues in general. Obviously, the possibility to create job opportunities in certain part of the world, to eradicate the stigmas that are usually associated with working with waste, to improve the methods of recycle and to promote a responsible consume are developments needed to improve our quality of life on the planet.