By Javier Castro Bugarin
Lujan, Argentina, Sep 26 (EFE).- Dozens of trash collectors are waiting with bated breath for the arrival of a new trash truck at Argentina’s largest open-air dump. Plastics, glass and all sorts of organic waste pass through their hands as they sort and separate, setting aside anything they can sell, while behind them rises the city of Lujan’s majestic cathedral like a divine mirage amid so much misery.
The days of the huge trash dump are numbered. The national government and the local city hall are ready to transform this enormous waste disposal site into an environmental center, ending decades of local pollution and unhealthy conditions but also a way of life for those who make their living from collecting and selling some of the castoff junk.
“Our proposal was to organize this and build an environmental center to change the socio-environmental conditions because this is a structural problem,” Pedro Vargas, the director of Urban Waste for the city located about 70 kilometers (43 miles) west of Buenos Aires, told EFE.
The atmosphere of the dump hasn’t changed much over the 50 years of its existence. Groups of scavenger birds and street dogs each day accompany the almost 200 informal workers who, rain or shine, come to the site to separate and go through hundreds of tons of trash.
One of them is Pablo Lopez, who at age 26 has spent half his life “recovering” trash from the dump, as his father and grandfather did before him.
“I have cousins and uncles who also come here to work. At least I know bricklaying, and I know how to do other things, but the majority (of the workers) only know this … Now, I’m finishing high school and later I’d like to study law or accounting. The thing is always to get ahead,” he told EFE.
City authorities acknowledge the “terrible (working) conditions” for these trash collectors and separaters and thus, for the past two years, efforts have been focused on improving the organization of the site, shutting down several access routes, prohibiting “illegal dumping” by other cities and building new infrastructure.
“They’re people who were looking for work, who reinvented themselves and now put food on their tables by working in conditions that are really horrible, the worst for a worker, but gradually we’ve been trying to turn things around along with several organizations and cooperatives,” Pedro Vargas said.
The culmination of that course change is to be seen in the upcoming Lujan Environmental Center, a project being pushed by the national Environment Ministry and which has received Inter-American Development Bank funding of some $10.7 million.
According to the Lujan urban waste chief, work on the project will begin in mid-October with the construction of a “dry and recyclable waste treatment plant” and later work will be launched on the dump itself, which little by little will be reduced in size from its current 12 hectares (30 acres) until is almost disappears.
“The dump will cease to exist, an ecopark will be established, all the ground will be covered up and all the untreated trash will be (flattened into the ground), which will radically change one of the city’s historic problems. We’re really very enthusiastic about it,” Vargas said.
However, one question arises inevitably amid the planning to close down the dump: What will happen to the workers and their families when they can no longer separate and sell the still-useful trash.
In Vargas’ opinion, integrating the trash collectors into this project is a “basic” necessity, not only to ensure the optimum functioning of the environmental center, but also – in the end – to provide them with “dignified working conditions.”
“There are fears … because everything new creates that, but also there’s a conviction that this can’t go on, that at some point it’s going to end and that there’s something new, in which they have to be the protagonists, because they were the ones who did the most for Lujan’s environment,” the municipal official said.
Many of the workers still have doubts, however, feeling that this dump is “their own,” an intrinsic part of their personality and their life story. But Pablo Lopez is determined: his generation will be the last to live off the dump.
“I don’t want this for my kids. I want them to have a good education, to finish school and to enjoy their childhood … I think that the transformation of the dump is really good for us because the changeover to the future is starting here. We’re going to cease being excluded from society,” he said.
It’s a change that, if it comes to fruition as planned, would set a decisive precedent for Argentina, where there are still more than 5,000 open-air trash dumps that are slated – sooner or later – for closing.