In my recent visit to Jordan, I had the opportunity, together with the landfill photographer Timothy Bouldry, to spend roughly an hour in Al Ekaider dumpsite (nearby the brand new sanitary landfill cell that is funded by UNDP and several development agencies).
We discussed with the informal recyclers that were working for a big contractor from Amman – all of them were Syrian refugees, some of them were doing the same work in Syria too. Their work is to separate 3 streams: plastics (4 persons out of the 10), metals (1 of the 10 persons), and cardboards – papers (5 of the 10 persons). They separate the materials immediately as the trucks are unloading and they put them in their 10-12 mt working fabrics. After their fabrics are almost full, they transferred them away from the dumpsite unloading front and leave them near the standby contractor’s trucks. UNDP and development agencies have already built toilettes, sanitizers, showers and dressing rooms for the informal recyclers – a small but important improvement to their daily lives.
Dumpsite workers deserve our respect because they demonstrate that waste involves useful and valuable resources
There are thousands of pages about the national waste management plan of Jordan, about the need to design recycling programs, about the specific infrastructure required and the benefits of better waste management for the people and the environment. But working in those filthy, unhealthy conditions, breathing air full of deadly pollutants, and trying to identify useful resources in waste loads is the most, if not the only, organized recycling activity in Jordan. They deserve our respect because they are the only ones showing in practice that waste involves useful and valuable resources.
These guys deserve much more than the usual philanthropic approach, so popular in some big NGOs, that ignores they are professionals risking their health, on a daily basis, for some dollars.
These guys deserve much more than the negative attitude and the arrogance they face by some local authorities and some big companies when they ignore that in many cases waste pickers are the only organized recycling effort.
These guys deserve to have a decent work and get out of the extreme poverty and the black labor networks. As the UN considers “Poverty is more than the lack of income and resources to ensure a sustainable livelihood. Its manifestations include hunger and malnutrition, limited access to education and other basic services, social discrimination and exclusion as well as the lack of participation in decision-making. Economic growth must be inclusive to provide sustainable jobs and promote equality”. As we already have learned by ISWA’s initiative to close the world’s biggest and most risky dumpsites, the most difficult part of such an effort is to manage the social challenges involved and to work together with the waste pickers for improving and ensuring a better future as well as their income. It’s about people – not waste, once more.
I was also watching carefully the hard work of the bulldozer driver. He was trying to elevate the waste moving carefully between the waste pickers, their materials and the trucks that were unloading or moving around. Still, he was doing his work patiently, professionally, and with the pride of the worker that knows how difficult and important is his job.
Working towards the SDGs
The time I spent in this dumpsite reminded me two important things. First, it reminded me “Why Garbagemen should earn more than Bankers“, written by the historian and writer Rutger Bregman for Evonomics. Many times I have thought about the dominance of actually useless professions in our world, professions that do not create wealth and provide societal values. Certainly, the waste pickers and the bulldozer driver are not in this case. With their work they recover resources, they protect our health and the environment, they contribute to our quality of life. Maybe they are doing something even more. They are working trying to “end (their) poverty, protect (our common) planet, and ensure prosperity for all“. If you agree with that, then they really contribute to the 2030 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) agreed by UN and more than 195 countries. How many professionals can really argue that their daily work contributes to SDGs?
Second, it reminded me a great poem written at 1935 by Bertold Brecht, the famous “Questions from a worker who reads”. Enjoy it.
Questions from a worker who reads
Who built Thebes of the seven gates?
In the books you will find the names of kings.
Did the kings haul up the lumps of rock?
And Babylon, many times demolished
Who raised it up so many times? In what houses
of gold-glittering Lima did the builders live?
Where, the evening that the Wall of China was finished
Did the masons go? Great Rome
Is full of triumphal arches. Who erected them? Over whom
Did the Caesars triumph? Had Byzantium, much praised in song
Only palaces for its inhabitants? Even in fabled Atlantis
The night the ocean engulfed it
The drowning still bawled for their slaves.
The young Alexander conquered India.
Was he alone?
Caesar beat the Gauls.
Did he not have even a cook with him?
Philip of Spain wept when his armada
Went down. Was he the only one to weep?
Frederick the Second won the Seven Year’s War. Who
Else won it?
Every page a victory.
Who cooked the feast for the victors?
Every ten years a great man?
Who paid the bill?
So many reports.
So many questions.