I was part of the lobby for the passage of the Clean Air Act and Ecological Solid Waste Management Act because I strongly believed that stopping pollution from all possible fronts was achievable. It only needed political will and resources. And by “resources” I do not only refer to financial resources but, more importantly, to human resources - communities working together to find means to stop pollution.

Having been to many dumpsites and landfills and worked with waste pickers, I understand why communities oppose them. Communities oppose dumpsites and landfills simply because they know there are risks that could sometimes mean life or death to them. Everyday, they inhale fumes from the cocktail of chemicals in a mixed waste dumpsite, or drink from water contaminated with pathogens and/or hazardous chemicals. But sometimes they feel they don’t have a choice, so they learn to live with the risks and try not to think of it. First, they have to survive. No one, given a choice, would want to live under such conditions.

Unfortunately, in many cases, communities that end up hosting such facilities are usually the economically disadvantaged, groups who have no voice in society. They are the ones who are slowly poisoned. Yet, they have very little to do with the problem – waste generation and mixed waste dumping. On the other hand, those who are better off economically, who are more directly responsible for generating a bigger fraction of the wastes, do not host these disposal facilities and do not have to be exposed to risks of diseases and other problems associated with living in or near a dumpsite. Therein lies the injustice.

Every time there is a tragedy related to waste, such as the recent Irisan garbage slide, or the tidal wave of wastes that flooded the streets of Manila, Obando and Navotas during Typhoon Pedring, some government officials, incinerator and landfill peddlers, and other personalities immediately pull out the incinerator or landfill card as the solution to the solid waste problem.

Landfills and incinerators, no matter how much engineering is put into them, will eventually fail. Landfill liners will leach toxic chemicals into the groundwater, surface water and soil, and emit dangerous gases into the air sooner or later. Incinerators, just by operating it, also produce toxic emissions and ash. Dr. Paul Connett, a retired chemistry professor from the St. Lawrence University in New York, says that for every three tons of waste fed into an incinerator, you get one ton of toxic ash. This toxic ash has to go somewhere.

In a country like ours with poor monitoring and enforcement, it is likely to be dumped in a dumpsite, landfill, a canal, or an open field, far from the enclaves of the rich and closer to or within communities of the economically weak. So the injustice continues.

But it does not have to be that way. Waste reduction, segregation and doing away with non-environmentally acceptable materials and packaging are ways to solve the problem of “where to put the garbage” – NOWHERE.

The country does not need expensive magic machines or technologies to get us out of the rut. We need to invest in people and their creativity, getting waste pickers out of the dump where they are being slowly poisoned and into more decent and safe waste management jobs or other livelihoods. Then they don’t have to be exposed to harm and their dignity is restored. And we all have to do our share by consuming less so that we waste less, by rejecting toxic materials and processes, and by increasing recovery and recycling efforts. In this way, we move closer to our zero waste vision and a future free of toxics.