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Trash Technology

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ENVIRONMENT[image, unknown] The hidden costs

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Trash technology
Garbage is always a dirty problem. But some ways of coping with waste make more sense than others. Jon Vogler looks at 'low-tech' solutions to the Third World's refuse explosion.

ARUM IM KEAU and her family live in a single storey house of brick and corrugated iron in a congested, low- lying area near the sea Ten years ago it was just a shanty town. Now that’s changing. Arum’s husband and his neighbours get occasional work on the dock. They spend their savings on cement and their weekends improving their homes. Few houses have a second storey but the reinforcement steel sticks out of the top of the walls ready for the next level when the money is available.

There is water too, not in every home but a standpipe every 50 yards or so. And there is electricity from an untidy web of cables dangling from the tall concrete columns. Sanitation is better since the Ministry- sent a man to show them how to dig pit latrines. Not too good when the river rises but better during the rest of the year.

Although life is getting easier for Arum and her family, garbage is becoming a problem. More and more of the food she buys in the local store comes in brightly-coloured cardboard packets. The milk is in plastic bags and the cooking oil in polythene bottles. The men have stopped brewing rice liquor and drink beer from metal cans.

With the leaves and vegetable peel, bones and other remnants the old oil drum in the kitchen fills up daily now, not once a week as in her childhood when she lived in the country and the hens and pigs ate all the waste.

Arum’s dilemma is where to empty it. Sometimes there is a big steel container in the square, half a kilometer away, which is collected every few days. But it is usually full and surrounded by a pile of garbage and swarms of flies by the time she gets to it. Sometimes she dumps it on the grass under the wall of a nearby factory— at least no-one lives there. Usually she copies the other women and throw’s it guiltily into the canal. She knows this is unhealthy and has seen the rats and the plastic sacks that block the sluices. But what else can she do?

Once Arum and her husband, travelling out of town to a sister’s wedding, passed a huge six-storey concrete structure. Arum’s husband said it was the new refuse disposal plant which had cost the city over $20 million. Soon all their garbage would be collected daily- by truck and taken there to be made into fertilizer for the paddy- fields. However the truck never came and one evening Arum’s brother told them that the refuse plant, built by a European contractor, would have to be abandoned.

The problem was not that plastic fragments made the compost unsightly, although that was bad enough, but the tiny sharp splinters of glass. The rice farmers, who stand barefooted in the flooded paddy fields, poking in the seedlings with naked fingers, refused to buy it and soon 100,000 tons of the stuff had piled up around the plant and the trucks could not get in to deliver any more garbage. So they went back to dropping it in the river.

In the meantime the City had to cut services to pay the interest on the loan for the useless compost plant. So there would be no men or trucks to collect from poor districts such as Arums.

Arum’s problems are shared by millions of people in towns and cities all over the Third World. In the hillside barrios of Mexico and the Andean cities the steep, stony tracks are inaccessible to anything except a donkey. In the congested slums of Asia the paths between houses are too narrow-. In the growing cities of Africa the municipalities have only- got the cash to clean the city centres where tourists and diplomats walk. Nothing is left for the shanty towns.

Nor is Arum’s city in South East Asia, with its ‘white elephant' composting plant any worse than Lagos with a gleaming new incinerator that is reportedly unable to burn the refuse because it is mainly vegetable and soaked with tropical rainfall.

In Baltimore, USA, the ‘Langard’ plant, built by the huge Monsanto company- to produce energy from the garbage, emitted such severe pollution that millions of dollars were spent on modifications. Finally-, the company ignominiously withdrew- from the contract, paying a huge penalty’ for so doing.

Out of 55 US plants built with the intention of recovering materials or energy from garbage, only 17 actually’ operate — what can only be described as a gigantic failure of high technology. In an age when money is needed to invest in job-producing industry and agriculture, or for health and education programmes, such plants cost too much, create too few jobs and draw money and municipal attention away- from the main priority of collecting garbage from homes and litter from the streets.

Why is it that vote-hungry politicians make this error, be they in Baltimore or Bangkok? Garbage disposal is usually a large-scale, centralised activity where technology is king. Problems are solved by calling in consultants, waiting for their report and signing a cheque for a few’ million dollars worth of plant or bulldozers or land.

Decisions to buy technology appear crisp and concise compared with the other nightmarish tasks of administering a Third World city. And if the Mayor gets an expenses paid trip to Tokyo or Chicago to inspect the plant, well it’s all part of the job.

Collection of garbage on the other hand is essentially a social business. Every home is different and the problems of persuading people to behave in standard ways are immense. The operation is decentralised: truck crews can cheat skip calls, finish early separate and sell recyclables from out of the load, leaving a trail of spillage in the streets. In Latin America householders find a little ‘gift’ every month is essential for getting your trash collected.

Few people in the Third World can afford a garbage can. If they do, it will be stolen for use as a water tank. Instead they pile their refuse in the streets where collectors shovel it up — an inefficient and back-breaking business.

Local mayors tend to buy sophisticated hydraulic compactor trucks, like those in Sydney or Stockholm. With poor maintenance and a lack of spare parts these break down in a hot ,gritty, tropical environment. They are also unnecessary. Tropical garbage, with a high proportion of vegetable matter and moisture, is nearly twice as dense as the paper-rich refuse of Europe. This fact has hit home in India where side-loading lorries or the highly cost-effective tractor with several trailers are used.

Saddest of all is the failure of city bosses to recognise that millions of people are practically doing the job for them— free. Scavengers comb the streets and homes of every Third World city collecting bottles, papers, bones and scrap metal to sell for a tiny income. Because they are poor, ignorant and unregulated, city officials ignore or persecute them, overlooking their substantial contribution to the national economy.

Mexican scavengers
But in Monterrey, Mexico, something different happened. When the city built its new- garbage composting plant to replace the dump, it substituted hand sorting for machines and gave the job of extracting recyclables to former scavengers. Although these people are not the most reliable of municipal employees, they are at least used to work that many people would despise. And the city makes a healthy saving from sales of recycled materials. The scavengers in turn benefit from regular income, more hygienic working conditions and a roof over their heads when it rains.

The Philippines also has a garbage success story — the imaginative Pera Sa Basura project that aims to make Manila ’the cleanest city in Asia’. Organised by the Ministry of Human Settlements, it began with a campaign to persuade slum dwellers to segregate wet and dry garbage. ‘Redemption centres’ were also opened where recyclables are brought, then sold to boost community funds. The actual collection of the garbage is done by former scavengers, now transformed into ‘Eco-Aides’ with uniforms, hand carts, protective clothing and guaranteed prices for what they salvage.

The programme has not had a smooth passage: poor quality tyres for the push carts, bans on heavy movement in the city, a general ignorance of commercial arithmetic and questionable support from the ‘Junk Kings’ (middlemen who grew rich under the old unregulated system) have complicated things.

But to the scavengers and to poor women like Arum Im Keao, who wish to live decently amid clean surroundings, it offers a new deal, and deserves to succeed. Ten million ‘Eco-Aides’ in the Third World by 1990 would be a far better bargain than 10,000 compactor trucks.

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John Vogler is a UK-based journalist engineer
and author of Work from Waste.

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New Internationalist issue 114 magazine cover This article is from the August 1982 issue of New Internationalist.
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