What if one man’s trash truly became another man’s treasure? As strange as it may sound, there are places on this beautiful blue planet where everyday household items, thrown out because they no longer serve their purpose, are collected, broken down, and released back into the world. These places are dark, dirty, and can hardly be classified as anything other than slums.
And yet, people live and work there.
Day and night, the hardworking inhabitants of the slums take down, separate, and collect all kinds of junk — from beer cans to machine parts, from old bottles to broken appliances. They sustain recycling industries worth millions. These people don’t rely on anyone except themselves, their communities, and a constant supply of waste — and we rely on them, as well.
Three districts in three countries are turning our discarded material into livelihoods. These slums are used as a low-cost means for developed countries to discard their waste. Here’s how illegal and unethical recycling practices have shaped the landscape of three separate regions.
Agbogbloshie: Suburb of Accra, Ghana
If you’ve ever wondered where your old, busted gadgets end up after you’ve tossed them in the rubbish bin, it’s most probably here. Agbogbloshie is the largest e-waste dump in Africa, with over 237,000 tons of electronics imported every year. The landscape is covered in mountains of old appliances, and the air is thick with an impenetrable black smoke from burning insulated electrical cables. They are burned to obtain the valuable copper inside.
Acid baths for extracting gold from microchips only further contribute to the hazardous atmosphere. Young men and boys work in groups to dismantle appliances, such as hard drives, air conditioners, and microwaves. Women and girls, on the other hand, hawk cooked food and water satchels. Many of the women have tiny babies on their backs, tightly tied to them with cloth. Even children have jobs at the notorious e-waste site, nicknamed "Sodom and Gomorrah" after two condemned biblical cities. They scout the area with magnets tied to a piece of string, looking for any small scraps of metal buried in the dirt.
To the tens of thousands people living in these harsh conditions, Agbogbloshie is their home and sole source of income.
According to unofficial data, 30 to 50 televisions and computer monitors are recycled every day. The recycled material is bought by wealthier countries at incredibly low prices, while old furniture and repaired goods are taken to other cities in Ghana. Scrap workers earn about $1 to $2.50 a day for their hard labor. That might seem insignificant until you learn the the average annual household income in Ghana is $1,327, and the average per capita income is $433.
The exact worth of the recycling industry in Agbogbloshie is unclear, since no official studies have been made. What is known for certain is that this slum, and others like it, are highly important for countries that want a cheap way to dispose of waste. The Basel convention forbids developed nations from dumping e-waste in less developed countries without authorization — and yet, as the Guardian reports, “cargo containers still arrive in Agbogbloshie, often illegally, from countries all over the world.”
Wen'an: County In Hebei, China
Plastic dumped in landfills is bad for the environment, but it’s unclear how to better dispose of it. The 460,000 residents of Wen’an, China probably never think of that problem while spending their days working in processing workshops in one of the most polluted areas in the world. The once picturesque and beautiful land of Wen'an was damaged beyond recognition some 25 years ago.
By 2006, one third of the 60,000 Chinese Plastics Processing Association’s workshops were located in Wen’an. Since China is the largest importer and processor of plastic scrap in the world, and around 20,000 of those workshops were moved to Wen’an, the county can be considered the center of the global plastic recycling industry. The recycling process has developed into a full chain, including sorting, cleansing, melting, shredding, granulating, and molding.
However, many employers don’t care about working conditions. Wages are measly. Workers get neither protective gear, nor uniforms. The smell of melted plastic fumes is always present and employees inhale it everyday while working, thus damaging their lungs irreversibly. The work conditions are dirty, smelly, noisy, and stressful.
The plastic industry has brought a steady income to the region, and poverty-related ailments like stomach pain and diarrhea — caused by a lack of clean drinking water — are things of the past. But today, high blood pressure and pulmonary diseases dominate increasingly younger populations.
Fortunately, recycling at Wen’an was closed down in 2011, and facilities were scattered across other Chinese regions. However, the effects of pollution are long-lasting.
Dharavi: Locality in Mumbai, Maharashtra, India
Although many of the items we use are made in China, some of them may be manufactured inside Asia’s largest slum: Dharavi. With a population ranging between 700,000 and 1 million people, this locality covers an area of just 2.17 kilometers. Population density is incredibly high, consisting of 293,000 people per square kilometer. All of these people live in small, residential structures, oftentimes up to ten individuals per home. Most of the settlements lack basic comforts and proper sanitization, the latter of which contributes heavily to pest and rodent infestations.
The local river Mahim Creek, used for discarding human waste, is a breeding ground for numerous diseases, such as malaria, dengue fever, and leptospirosis. Open sewers are often flooded due to lengthy rainy seasons, resulting in even more waste and foul odors. Clean drinking water is scarce as it can only be obtained through public standpipes. The precious liquid is usually released at random times of the day only for several hours, and the standpipes themselves are in a terrible shape. Air pollution brings in even more diseases, such as asthma, lung cancer, and tuberculosis.
Contrary to all odds, however, Dharavi’s annual turnover rate from its informal economy is estimated to be over $1 billion. The slum recycles 80% of Mumbai’s plastic waste, among other materials.
The slum is also a huge exporter of leather, textiles, jewels, pottery, papad, and more. Tens of thousands of small shops employ local residents in delivering goods for different industries in the US, Europe, and the Middle East. Working conditions are still far from perfect, but the sense of community is as strong as ever. A local organization, known as Reality Tours, offers a tourism service. Although considered voyeurism by some, this type of tourism has helped Dharavi gain more popularity and business — and it has spread awareness. The Indian slum has also been featured in a large number of Hindi films.
According to the BBC, there are plants to develop Dharavi with proper housing, shopping complexes, hospitals, and schools. The project will cost an estimated $2.1 billion.
About the author: Lisbeth Larose is a blogger and the lead content writer of Fantastic Waste Removal London. Lisbeth understands that she alone cannot make the world a better place, so she appeals to everyone to keep the environment clean and green.