Hesperian Health Guides

A Community Trash Walk

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HealthWiki > A Community Guide to Environmental Health > Chapter 18: Solid Waste: Turning a Health Risk into a Resource > A Community Trash Walk

A community trash walk provides an opportunity for people to look at and discuss trash problems. People can voice their concerns about trash and their hopes for a cleaner and healthier community. During and after the walk, the group can discuss what steps are necessary to clean up the community and to plan for resource recovery.

Organize a trash walk

  1. Invite people to participate in a trash walk

    To make a trash walk most effective, involve not only people from the neighborhood, but also people who work with waste and those who have the power to change how waste is collected, transported, and managed. Include:

    • workers in small industries.
    • second-hand dealers and waste transporters.
    • buyers who collect or purchase waste directly from households or businesses.
    • waste collectors who recover materials from the streets or dumping sites.
    • community leaders
    • government officials who can support a community clean-up.

  2. Hold a meeting before the trash walk

    It is helpful to have a meeting to talk about the reasons for the walk, what to look for, and what each person hopes to achieve by joining the trash walk. It is helpful to understand what motivates each of them. Some people may earn their livelihood collecting resources that others throw away. Others may want to improve the health and beauty of the community.

  3. People talk as they gather outside a small store.
    Thirty years ago we grew all of our food. Now we buy most of our food at the store.
    Everything comes wrapped in plastic that we throw in the street.
    Now there is garbage everywhere.
  4. Plan your walk

    Decide where to walk and together make a list of things to look for, such as:

    • trash clogging drainage ditches, other waterways, and streets.
    • human feces and animal waste along streets and waterways.
    • toxic wastes.
    • animals eating from trash piles.

    Ask older members of the community to describe how it was 20 or 30 years ago. Was there more or less or different kinds of trash? What did people do with their trash then? Think about this during the walk.

  5. Walk!

    Break into teams to walk around different parts of the community. Because different groups will notice different problems, you might form teams of only men or only women, or have a youth group walk separately from adults. Or you may have all mixed teams.

    Notice where trash collects and the most common ways trash is disposed of. Are there public trash bins? Do people burn trash or dump it in the open? Bring it to a landfill or incinerator? Are some things collected and reused or recycled, such as glass bottles or newspapers? What about waste from businesses?

    Have someone in each team keep a list or make a drawing of the problems you find on the walk, including what kinds of waste you see.

  6. Health workers talk with 2 women on their doorstep, beside their buckets of trash.

  7. Look at waste in people’s homes. How much and what kinds are there?

    As a part of the walk, go to some volunteers’ homes to see what kinds of waste and resources are there. Take a full trash can and dump its contents on the ground. Separate the waste into 5 piles:

    • food scraps and other wet, organic waste
    • plastics
    • paper
    • metal
    • other wastes

    Which pile is biggest and which is smallest? What is done with each of these kinds of waste, and what could be done rather than throwing them in the trash? Take some of the waste from several households to the group discussion that follows.

    Remember to put the rest back in the trash cans!

  8. Come together to discuss what people saw

    Later the same day (or the next day), bring all the teams back together to discuss what was learned.

    Ask everyone to share what they saw during the walk. Have each person show a piece of household waste and say if she noticed the same kind of waste elsewhere in the community creating a problem or being reused or recycled. Did people see any possible or current health problems due to poor waste disposal? What were the better ideas about waste disposal that some families were using?

  9. List the causes and effects of the problems

    Women talk as they look at a chalkboard labelled "Trash Walk. Causes: no composting. Burning trash. Lots of bottles and cans. Problems: bad smells and smoke. Trash piles. Health effects: coughing. Children sicker with asthma. Polluted water.
    Since the new supermarket opened, everything they sell comes in plastic. This should go under the ‘causes’ list.

    A facilitator can write the problems people raised on a chalkboard or large paper. Ask everyone to think about the causes of the community’s waste problems and write these in a column next to the problems list. Then ask how each problem affects the health of the community. Write or draw a different health effect related to each problem in another column.

  10. Plan next steps

    Ask the group to review the problems and think about possible actions they can take to resolve them. Next steps can start with ways to reduce the health effects of a problem, or try to get rid of a problem completely. Ask questions such as:

    • How can each household reduce the amount of trash it produces?
    • How can we promote more composting and separating wastes?
    • Can a community group or business be formed to collect and reuse waste?
    • Is there land to build a compost site or resource recovery center?
    • Where is the nearest recycling plant?
    • How can local government, community leaders, factories, and businesses each take responsibility to solve problems caused by waste?

A community trades trash for cash

The shantytowns of Curitiba, Brazil, had many open waste pits. They were breeding grounds for disease-carrying rodents. To deal with this problem, the Curitiba city council launched a program called “Don’t Throw Away Your Garbage—We Buy It.” The city council figured out how much it would cost to clean up the open dumps. Then, instead of hiring an outside company to do the job, they figured out what the cost would be for each bag of trash, and offered this amount to the residents.

People bring their trash to a municipal collection truck.

Besides earning money for the trash they collected, every person was given a free public transit ticket for each bag they delivered to a municipal collection truck. Because these neighborhoods are located far from the city center, these tickets were highly prized. The city also donated money for each bag collected to develop community gardens and other projects. Areas that were once piled high with garbage were transformed into urban gardens or parks with trees. Community health improved.

Recent immigrants, people with disabilities, or others who needed work were given safe jobs sorting waste at a resource recovery center. Food scraps and garden waste were composted for use in city parks and local farms and gardens. Plastic and metal were sold to local industries. Plastic foam was shredded and used to fill blankets.

A few years after the program began, the city made the project even better. They began buying food directly from farmers close to the city at a fair price, and offered people a bag of fresh food in exchange for a bag of garbage. This helped the farmers sell their produce, improved the nutrition of the families in the shantytowns, and cleaned up the city.