Lives buried under the weight of waste
At around 9 AM, two massive excavators were moving wastes from a waste dumping platform at Matuail Sanitary Landfill. Deafening noise from the engines and their gigantic moving arms equipped with teethed steel bucket could not make any impression on 10-year-olds Shabuj and Shajib.
They were extremely busy looking for reusable materials such as plastic bottles, glass jars, electronics etc. Several metres away, atop a garbage mound, their mother Saleha Begum picks reusable wastes.
Every night, garbage trucks and vans of Dhaka South City Corporations dump more than 2500 tonnes of solid waste in the landfill.
As there is no waste segregation and recycling facility in the landfill, such huge amounts of daily waste collection have created massive mounds – some of which tower almost 70 feet (equivalent to a five-storey building) above the base of the landfill.
Waste pickers like Saleha, Shabuj and Shajib enter the landfill at around 5 AM and work up to 10-11 AM.
As we approached Shabuj and Shajib to ask questions, they ran, refusing to talk. Their mother Saleha came to us and said, "They are shy to talk in front of camera. They used to read at grade three. Since schools are closed, they came here to help me."
When asked for how long they work here, she said, "We stay here until the last truck and van leaves the site. Most of the trucks dump waste at night. Some trucks come here at 9 or 10 AM."
Arrival of a dump truck cause a great stir among waste pickers. As soon as they see a truck coming, they run towards the dumping platform to get the first access to the waste.
"The competition among waste pickers is brutal as most of the waste are kitchen waste and polybags which are not sellable. We collect mostly hard plastics and objects made of glass and metal," said Mamun Mia, another waste picker.
Besides competition, this job of finding recyclable waste is also extremely hazardous.
When we reached the landfill at around 9 AM, there were at least 20-30 waste pickers working in different parts of the site. Some of them were children and none of those waste pickers were wearing protective gear such as gloves, masks and protective clothing.
Due to ruined leachate collection drains, toxic liquids from the waste have spread all over the dumping sites and turned the solid wastes into stinking, gooey mud.
"We work in the dirt for five to six hours at a stretch. Then we have to sell the collections to scrap collector shops. That takes another two to three hours. Only then we can wash ourselves. This is why skin disease is very common among us. Also, we often get injured by blades, glass and sharp objects," said Saleha.
"I bought my children a pair of boots and gloves but they do not want to wear it as they feel hot and uncomfortable," she adds.
There is also risk of falling from the towering waste mounds.
However, working so hard and taking such risk pays off when these waste pickers earn quick cash by selling their collections at the nearby recycling workshops.
According to Mamun, an intact glass jar can be sold up to 18 to 20 taka and plastic bottles can be sold up to five to six taka per piece.
Depending on the toil of these waste pickers, a thriving recycling business has sprung up near the landfill. Most of the tin-roofed huts adjacent to the landfill site are actually busy recycling workshops. Every day, they buy millions of takas worth of recyclable wastes.
A recent embargo on outsiders to enter the landfill site has severely affected the livelihood of the waste pickers and recyclers.
Shafiullah Siddique Bhuiyan, project director of Matuail Sanitary Landfill said, "We have prohibited any outsider from entering the landfill premises for security reasons. Sometimes, people dump narcotics and other contraband materials into the landfill. We have told the waste pickers to collect wastes from garbage containers and transfer stations."
"Before the embargo, we used to provide masks, gloves and boots to waste pickers. As we have officially prohibited them, we stopped providing those equipment to discourage them to come here. However, when some poor local residents, who have no other ways of livelihood request us, we allow them on humanitarian grounds," he adds.