Hesperian Health Guides
Chapter 18: Solid Waste: Turning a Health Risk into a Resource
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Solid waste is called trash, garbage, rubbish, and many other names. Solid waste does not have to cause health problems. It can even become a source of income and of resources for making new products. But when solid waste is not safely collected, separated, reused, recycled, or properly disposed of, it can be ugly, smelly, and cause serious health problems.
Many of us throw things away assuming that someone else will somehow take care of our trash. Too often, it is the poorest people who are forced to live in, on, and with the waste created by the rest of society. And it is the poorest people who usually do the work of collecting, sorting, cleaning, and recycling waste into usable resources (resource recovery). While everyone agrees this is important and necessary work to protect our health and environment, rarely are the people who do it paid well or treated with respect.
To manage waste so it does not harm people or the environment, we need to reduce the amount of waste we create and turn what we can back into useful materials and resources. Everyone, but especially industries and governments, must take responsibility for the wastes they create and for preventing waste in the first place by making and using products that are reusable, recyclable, or compostable.
How Eseng gained better health and respect
Every day, Eseng went around the city of Bandung, Indonesia, to collect trash. Because his house was far from the neighborhoods with the best trash, he spent almost all his time walking back and forth carrying heavy bags.
Each night, Eseng sorted the trash to sell to dealers the next morning. Some dealers bought glass, others bought scrap metal, and others bought paper. But the things no dealer would buy piled up around Eseng’s house. His yard became a messy, dangerous garbage dump, but there was nowhere for Eseng to get rid of the trash. Sometimes he got infections that lasted for months and made it difficult to work. Now and again he got a bad fever and chills from malaria because mosquitoes bred in the tires in his yard. And, despite his hard work, the police often bothered him when they found him sorting through trash in front of shops or in the street.
Eseng and some other waste collectors decided to organize a center to help them sell what they collected, and to provide other benefits by sharing knowledge, tools, and information. They visited a local organization that worked for the environment and workers’ rights, and together they came up with the idea to develop a more complete resource recovery program.
People from the environmental organization asked the city government to support the resource recovery program, and to make the police and shop owners treat the waste collectors better. The city government agreed, and a center was set up where Eseng and the others could sort the waste they collected. Each of the waste collectors was given a cart with wheels, making it easier to collect waste and bring it to the center for sorting or take it directly to junk dealers.
The resource recovery center provided gloves and boots to protect the workers from sharp objects and contaminated trash. When the people from the environmental organization learned that Eseng had malaria, they helped him get care and medicine at a health clinic.
Eseng still works hard collecting waste, but his health has improved and his house no longer looks like a garbage dump. The police and shop owners give him and the other waste collectors the respect they deserve for helping to keep the community clean. And the city is proud of the resource recovery center and their cleaner city.