Mexico’s waste pickers take precautions against Covid-19

By Eduard Ribas i Admetlla

Nezahualcoyotl, Mexico, Aug 13 (efe-epa).- The coronavirus has claimed 55,000 lives in Mexico and the number of confirmed cases is approaching 500,000, but Amada Odilon and the 250 other people who subsist by salvaging usable items from a giant trash dump in this Mexico City suburb have managed to avoid infection.

Sprawling across nearly 30 hectares (74 acres) in Nezahualcoyotl, the Neza III site is the repository for refuse from 1.2 million people.

While the mounds of garbage don’t include hospital waste, the “pepenadores” (scavengers) are aware that the virus can be present on the tons of plastic, clothing, furniture and other trash.

Odilon, 49, says that despite the pandemic, she still comes to Neza III in search of plastic and cardboard that earns her around 100 pesos ($4.50) daily and – on a good day – as much as 200 pesos.

But she has been forced to make changes to her routine of 35 years, adding gloves and a mask to the hoodie and hat she wears to shield her skin from the relentless rays of the sun.

“It’s too tiring. It’s very exhausting. Now with the facemask you sweat and all the steam rises. We’re sweating here like sardines,” Amada tells Efe with a wry chuckle.

Besides wearing a mask and gloves, she washes her hands “constantly” and is careful to maintain a “safe distance” from her fellow pepenadores.

And those efforts appear to be working, as none of the 250 pepenadores at Neza III has tested positive for coronavirus.

Like many of her colleagues, Amada was introduced to the trade as a youngster, when she accompanied her pepenador aunt to the dump in search of toys.

“I liked it and I’ve never left,” she quips.

“It’s a heritage that has existed for many years. Their grandfathers or fathers were here and they are children or grandchildren of the people who came,” the official in charge of waste collection in Nezahualcoyotl, Jaime Ruiz, tells Efe.

With the closing of schools and many businesses due to the pandemic, the volume of trash reaching Neza III has declined from 1,200 tons a day to around 800 tons, reducing income for the pepenadores.

Driven by necessity, they crowd together without regard for social distancing to get first crack at the new loads of trash as they arrive.

Yet everyone wears gloves and a mask and the municipal government has adjusted the schedule to stagger the arrival of the trucks, now equipped with sanitizer stations.

From inside a rickety wooden hut, 84-year-old Roman Sierra, who leads one of the six contingents of pepenadores working at Neza III, keeps a close eye on doings at the dump.

Each contingent has its own, strictly demarcated territory.

“There are no debates or disputes here. If I see people arguing, I throw them out,” Sierra says, leaning on a cane.

To prevent fires, he prohibits the 40 pepenadores in his group from smoking at the dump and he has likewise barred them from drinking alcohol on the job.

So it no surprise that Sierra is taking the same approach to Covid-19 safety.

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