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Trash a source of income for poor families

By Antonio De Jesús Aguado

What in the urban area is defined as “trash” has a different meaning for those who live in the communities near the Relleno Sanitario (sanitary landfill) in San Miguel de Allende.

Daily, more than 150 men, women and children “clandestinely” break into the landfill to pick up discards such as clothes, metals, paper, plastic and cardboard, among other materials that they consider have value. Although the local government has tried to help these “scavengers” through programs such as Temporal Employment, it has been impossible to take them out of the relleno, according to Julián Villela, director of the Public Services department, because getting into the landfill and carrying off refuse has became a way of life for them, and they have neither a boss nor a fixed schedule.

The relleno sanitario started operating during the 2003–2006 administration headed by Luis Alberto Villareal. It was a major project, and later a waste-management company (FADIM S.A. de C.V.) became involved. That company, according to Villela, promised the government a dry sanitary landfill and that 100 percent of the trash would be separated to help avoid environmental pollution. The solid waste that could not be recycled would be compressed and packaged (FADIM had the right to sell the recycled products). For that reason, the local government invested millions of pesos in the purchase of a machine to separate the trash (currently not used). According to Villela, during the 2006–2009 administration, headed by Jesús Correa, the company faced several problems. The municipality sued FADIM because they were not fulfilling the contract. “I never saw a single bale of trash,” said the director. The judge ruled in favor of the municipality, but later, during the 2009–2012 administration headed by Luz María Núñez, the company received a compensation of more than four million pesos.

Current conditions of the landfill

The relleno sanitario occupies an area of more than three hectares and has three deposit sites. Currently garbage is put in deposit two. When the solid wastes arrives, the scavengers take what they can, and later the trash is scattered, compressed and then covered with a layer of tepetate (limestone). It is important to manage the deposits carefully to minimize the production of pollutants and greenhouse gases that deplete the ozone layer. In addition, incorrect management of the dump could cause pollution of grounds and groundwater systems through leaching.

Víctor Manuel Velázquez, director of the Department of Environment and Ecology, revealed that the current administration received the relleno sanitario without written operating procedures and with useless machinery and untrained personnel.

If the machine for separating the trash were working, the lifetime of deposit two could increase from four to six years, said Velázquez. He also said that during the last administration the capacity of the 11 separators of trash from the Public Services Department was exceeded, and deposit one was oversaturated, causing a negative and worrying visual impact, which could have caused public health and environmental problems. Velázquez noted that the current administration received the landfill with 8,320 tons of unprocessed trash, which is equal to 104 days of work, and all of that because of the useless machinery. These unprocessed wastes, said Velázquez, deteriorated the natural resources.

Currently, said the director, the employees are in training, and some workshops to separate the trash are being held in the urban and rural area. The local government is also working with the Guanajuato Institute of Ecology to get the permits to close deposit one according to the regulations. The public servant said that from October 2012 to July 2013 more than 25,000 tons of solid waste have been correctly processed.

Converting trash into money

On a visit to the relleno sanitario, organized by the Public Relations Department, it was possible to stroll through the area used for final disposal of waste. It was impossible not to notice that dozens of dogs, men, women and children swirled around the trucks that arrived with the trash, looking for valuable objects or to collect glass, metals, plastic, cardboard and other sellable items with which to eke out a meager living. Some of them have even constructed improvised houses of cardboard and plastic bags around the area.

In the words of the director of Public Services, what the scavengers do is “steal the trash from the municipality.” According to him the needs of the people in the communities near the relleno have increased, and that has prompted between 70 and 80 people each day and each night to enter the relleno to extract as many objects and recyclable materials as they can. “There are people who are dressed in clothes that they have found there,” said Villela, who also made it clear that the people do not live in the houses of cardboard and plastic constructed in the zone, but they are used by the attending señoras for protecting their children from the sunlight as well as for eating. “But no one lives there,” he noted.

Villela acknowledged that what the scavengers do is basically “robbery” because they enter the landfill, which is private property, and for that reason they could be sued. Nevertheless, the director commented that it is a very sensitive topic and for that reason he had a talk with Mayor Mauricio Trejo, who gave instructions not to disturb the people so they could have a source of income and sustain their families.

On that matter, the director of Ecology commented that working to eliminate scavenging of waste is not within his department’s purview. “People need to survive, one way or another. As citizens we all have needs, and it would be chaos if we throw them out when all they are looking for is a way to survive,” he said.

Although a culture of separating solid waste does not really exist in the municipality, Villela commented that they have launched some programs but there has not been a good response. In addition, he said that if the trash were not taken away by the collectors, later the people would throw it away in empty lots. “We would need to work one on one to educate them and show them how to separate their trash,” he finished.

In San Miguel de Allende, based on information from the Public Services Department, more than 90 tons of solid waste are collected from Monday through Saturday by 100 employees with 18 trucks. There are 17 routes (14 urban and 3 rural). The total hours worked by the employees range from 13 to 15 hours.

Information from the SEMARNAT (Secretariat of Environment and Natural Resources) state that by region the states located on the northern border generated 16 percent of the total solid waste in the country (6, 748.85 billion tons). Those in central Mexico, among them Jalisco, Guanajuato, Mexico, Aguascalientes and Veracruz and others, accumulated 51 percent (20,794 billion tons), and states in the south only 10 percent.

Mexico state generated 16 percent of the total, Mexico City 12 percent, and Jalisco 7 percent.
According to the SEMARNAT, in 2011 the collectors of solid waste classified it as follows:
Waste from gardens, food and similar          52.4 percent
Other types of waste                                          12.1 percent
Paper, cardboard and similar                        13.8 percent
Plastics                                                                 10.9 percent
Glass                                                                    5.9 percent
Aluminum                                                          1.7 percent
Other metals                                                     0.6 percent

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