[OPINION] Refuse: On dumpster diving, a trash avalanche, and a thwarted garbage war

Irene Sarmiento

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[OPINION] Refuse: On dumpster diving, a trash avalanche, and a thwarted garbage war
'What came to me as culture shock wasn’t what Americans treasured, but what they considered trash'

In the summer months of 2020, in a college town in Northern Colorado in the middle of the pandemic, my husband and I started an unconventional mom-and-pop operation: selling garbage. The students had left. Some returned to their home states, many graduated and abandoned their particle-board furniture, coolers of warm beer, kitchenware, unopened canned goods, athletic equipment, and to my surprise, several bicycles. I will never get over the cognitive dissonance of witnessing such items awaiting waste collection in middle-class neighborhoods, or piled up against the dumpsters of apartment complexes. When I moved to the States, I saw undamaged couches on curbsides and wondered what they were doing there. It didn’t take long before I learned that they were pending bulk pick-up. What came to me as culture shock wasn’t what Americans treasured, but what they considered trash. 

Gabriel and I started collecting some of these unwanted objects — appliances, dressers, nightstands, bikes — disinfecting them, and selling them online, mostly to students moving into town. In a couple of months, we made enough to cover half the rent. While I was somewhat shocked to find bikes just abandoned, Gabriel was not. He worked for a university in Texas and said that every move-out season, graduates and dropouts would leave their bicycles still chained to the stands around campus. 

In the Philippines in January of that same year, the Quezon City (QC) court released the decision declaring the QC government guilty of gross negligence for the Payatas dumpsite tragedy, which happened in July of 2000. I was in high school when over 200 people were buried alive in a “garbage slide” after days of torrential rains. The victims were migrants from the rural regions who had relocated to the largest dumpsite in the country in order to scavenge for saleable recyclables, such as plastics and scrap metals. The area at the bottom of the mountain of detritus, named Lupang Pangako (Land of Promise), was home to some 3,000 informal settlers. 

Local news op eds communicated disgust that our fellow citizens had been subject to such a horrible demise. How could such a thing happen so close to home? It was difficult to imagine the extent of poverty that thousands were going through, such that leaving their provinces to settle at the base of a gargantuan pile of refuse was somehow more viable than staying where they were. There was also the discomfiture at the knowledge that the victims were entombed in our QC trash. 

Growing up in QC, we saw “scavengers” roaming our neighborhood. They would yell, “diyaryo, bote” (newspapers, bottles), to indicate what they were gathering while they pushed rickety wooden carts, which aside from their livelihoods sometimes carried their children. Belonging to an upper-middle-income family secured my own safety from such a fate, though my view of abject poverty remained clear from within my socioeconomic haven. Destitution formed the undercurrents of the lore our elders used to scare youngsters straight. There were stories about the yayas (nannies) who kidnapped little ones from well-to-do families; the teenage muggers who lured private-schooled-boys from gaming cafes into the slums; the human-trafficking cab drivers who preyed on girls out past curfew.   

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Things changed when I migrated to the States. The extremely poor — a significantly smaller portion of the general population — became invisible, neither actively feared nor pitied. When I worked in healthcare facilities in Texas, my patients were described as “poor” but wore branded sneakers and lived in carpeted, air-conditioned apartments. In graduate school, white classmates loudly bemoaned their “poverty” and college loans, yet they took out-of-state ski trips into the mountains. Life became abundant. Many of the adult patients who I cared for on the job actually suffered from diseases of lifestyle excess

Residing in a rich empire, I felt more and more distanced from my memories of the Global South’s itinerant scroungers and classist tales of horror. My sense of indignation was revived in 2019, when Philippine president Rodrigo Duterte made international news — this time not for state-sponsored mass killings. Duterte had threatened a “declaration of war” against Canada. Years prior, a private Canada-based company had deposited over a hundred shipping containers, supposed to have been carrying “recyclable plastics,” but actually filled with household trash, like kitchen waste and soiled adult diapers. 

It was appalling that a nation so developed couldn’t devise a better solution for its rubbish than to dump it on an economically disadvantaged archipelago with a substantially smaller collective land mass. About 26 containers worth of detritus had already been disposed of in a landfill in Tarlac. The larger portion of the Canadian garbage sat and moldered in Manila. For the first and only time, I found myself rooting for the Philippine president and thinking, “No, he doesn’t mean he’s literally going to declare war.” The “them,” who were vulnerable, exploited, and literally being buried under weight of the world’s refuse, became “us.”  I followed the news for several months to its somewhat happy ending: 69 of the waste vessels were eventually repatriated to the outskirts of Vancouver.  

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The world cannot keep pace with human creation of so much trash. It’s January of 2022 as of writing, and as new graduates move out of this college town again, they leave behind the “throw-away” items that once marked their lives as indebted students. In one parking lot, I see large white rectangles poking out of dumpsters, being soaked by melting snow — mattresses treated as disposable, like dirty sponges. The evidence that carbon dioxide emissions are driven up more by overconsumption in the West, as opposed to population growth in the poorer parts of the globe, is clear and obvious. Yet, it is the people in developing nations, like mine, who are more likely to suffer the catastrophic consequences brought about by climate change and environmental destruction. One does not have to be devastatingly poor to feel the effects of an increasingly hotter Earth. In the typhoon seasons when I was a child, my siblings and I would wait on the second floor of our home while the ground level was inundated. Each year, the water inched further up the steps, until my family finally moved to a house on higher ground.   

I look back at the peak of the pandemic lockdowns in mid-2020. From her apartment in QC, my sister mentioned the difficulty of getting a bicycle donated for the caretaker at the animal shelter where she volunteered. Public transportation was limited, leaving many without the means to get to work and provide for their households. On our video calls, my family in the Philippines expressed bewilderment and fascination when they heard about the wares Gabriel and I had scavenged from the dumpsters of fraternity and sorority houses, including a weight bench, a mini-fridge, an electric fireplace — each piece selling for no less than $60 on Facebook Marketplace. 

“We also found two more bikes,” I had told my loved ones. It was such a shame not to be able to send one back. Over here, kids throw away bicycles. –

Irene Carolina Sarmiento is the author of two illustrated children’s books, Spinning and Tabon Girl, both published by Anvil. Her stories have won awards from The Palanca Memorial Foundation, Philippines Free Press, Philippine Graphic/Fiction Awards, and Stories to Change the World.  She is an occupational therapist with a master’s degree in Applied Cognition and Neuroscience.

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