A Mountain of Trash

March 28, 2014: Today I ventured well off the beaten track to a place you won’t find listed on Trip Advisor or promoted by tourism organizations. Nor should it be.

Tagging along with US Peace Corp volunteers, Pat and Donna, we hopped a jeepney to one of the outer barangays of Olongapo City. Once up in the hills in New Cabalan, we met up with Maribel, who heads Go For Climate, a local women’s group that is trying to increase the livelihood of its members who all live adjacent to the city dump and eek a living from it. Maribel led us, and Lisette (our translator for the day), further up into the hills to the region’s only dumpsite, the Olongapo City Landfill.

I found the dump’s history interesting and somewhat confusing, probably because the information came from a variety of people and various online sources, including several different newspaper articles each stating different “facts”. This is the best I could make of it all.

Built in the 1980s with assistance from US AID and originally planned to be a modern sanitary landfill, this 17 hectare dump was damaged during the Mt. Pinatubo eruption in 1991 and has operated since then as a controlled open dump. From what I understood from Maribel, the dump has been around for a lot longer, presumably in a previous incarnation.

It was ordered closed by the Philippines Department of Environment and Natural Resources in 2005 and again in 2011 to force a move to a sanitary landfill. Despite these orders, the dump is still operating with about 150 tons of garbage arriving daily in trucks from all over Olongapo and the Subic Bay Freeport Zone.

In case you were wondering, as I was, there are basically three ways of disposing of waste: open dumps, controlled dumps and sanitary landfills. I’m not quite sure where incineration and newer technologies fit into the picture, so I’ve chosen to ignore them.

Open dumps are still the most common way to dispose of waste in many countries, especially those that are less developed. They usually don’t have any environmental controls, not even limiting what goes in. Scavenging is widespread and the volume of waste is typically reduced by burning. This type of dump poses the greatest threat to public health and the environment.

Controlled dumps aren’t usually much more advanced from an engineering standpoint. Instead, the emphasis is placed on operation and management. There are restrictions on what is allowed in, waste picking and trading is controlled and compacting is the primary method to control waste volume.

At the upper end of the waste management spectrum, you find sanitary landfills. These are engineered facilities that minimize risks to public health and the environment. They are costly but a more desirable method of waste disposal.

The Olongapo dump seems to fit somewhere between the first two categories.

At the time of the second closure order, the city’s sanitation office said they had no choice but to continue to use the dumpsite while waiting for a loan to construct a sanitary landfill for the city. The loan was approved just a couple of months later, but nothing much seems to have changed in the meantime.

Picking and burning are still used in conjunction with compacting to control volume, although these days the pickers are organized into 20 details with a rotating schedule (three groups per day, or about 50 people). I was told they make an average of 300 pesos per day, which is just slightly below the minimum wage, and usually do better on days when the trash from the more affluent Freeport Zone is delivered.

To complicate matters, the site that was identified for the sanitary landfill was covered by a trash slide as a result of a typhoon that hit the area in September 2011, burying three huts and killing three, including a mother and daughter. It’s not the only dump with a macabre past. Another trash slide at the Baguio dump killed five in 2011. Eleven years earlier, a massive trash slide at Quezon City’s dump killed 300 people.

As we stood atop a cliff looking down to the valley below, it was exactly the sort of thing I could imagine would happen. We were standing on a wall of trash several storeys high. I read somewhere the average depth of trash was 30 metres. I’d have guessed more.

The waste isn’t going anywhere. In fact the problem just keeps getting bigger. As Olongapo’s population increases (it has more than doubled between 1970 and 2010), as more people are able to afford to buy consumer goods with all the packaging that goes along with them, as more businesses move into the Subic Bay Freeport Zone, the city simply buys more trucks to make more trips to the dump. Residents of New Cabalan also claim that rats that brought about the leptospirosis outbreak following last year’s flooding in Olongapo came from here.

The good news is that Olongapo City has a solid waste management plan. Whether it is successfully implemented is another story. Some barangays already have programs in place for the segregation of recyclables. Others are just starting to work on it. It still seems a far cry from what we are used to in North America. But then consider that just five or six years ago their focus was merely on educating residents about proper handling, storage, collection, transport and disposal of solid waste to improve sanitary conditions around town. They are making progress.

Once they do get a sanitary landfill up and running, there’s another huge challenge awaiting them. How to relocate and provide alternative livelihood programs for the waste pickers that will be put out of work. For some, their employment options are often limited by little formal education. For others, like Maribel and the Go For Climate ladies, at least they are planning ahead.

Things are already starting to change. One of the men told me they don’t make as much money picking as they used to. Apparently more recyclables are removed from the waste stream before the trash makes it to the dump. It seems the recycling programs that do exist are working but the pickers are the ones that lose out.

After our brief visit, I was hot and bothered, and my eyes, lungs and sinuses were irritated. I couldn’t imagine spending my days working in those conditions amidst the flies, the dust and the aroma, which was surprisingly the least offensive of the three. Wet season would probably be worse.

You can bet I’ll be looking at our own trash with fresh eyes after today’s experience. All the more reason to reduce, reuse and recycle.

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One response to “A Mountain of Trash

  1. Pingback: Santa Rita Recycles | M/V MOKEN·

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