Friday, April 17, 2009

The Real Slumdog Millionaires

Last month I had the opportunity to attend a few film screenings at SXSW. Since I was keeping an eye out for green energy and awareness, I decided to attend a screening of “Garbage Dreams”. Hoping to get some footage and information about recycling for my podcast, I was instead told a story of the struggles of three young boys from the outskirts of Cairo.

The documentary focuses on the lives of the three teenagers living a simple and meager life collecting trash over the course of four years. They are part of the Zaballeen, a community of poor Christians that live in a neighborhood literally built on trash. For generations the Zaballeen’s main source of income is through the processing and recycling of metals, plastics and glass into raw goods. The processed raw material is then sold to other countries like China and Belgium. Through generations of waste processing, the neighborhood has developed an intricate and delicate system where every member has their own responsibilities. However, the when Cairo begins to modernize their waste management system and outsource their waste collection to foreign companies, the community is forced to change their lives.

So why should the rest of the world care about their problem? The new foreign companies recycle approximately 20% of their waste collection, whereas the Zaballeen recycles approximately 80% of their waste collection. After all, they do make a living off recycling not the actual act of waste collection. Many countries can learn from the Zaballeen, even the US when we consider the fact that we recycle approximately 30% of our waste and Switzerland leads the world with a recycling rate of 52%.

The Zaballeen system would be extremely difficult to implement in the US since it does require a relatively large infrastructure, but there are ways of making baby steps towards a higher recycling rate. Ever since I moved to Austin from Los Angeles, I’ve noticed that the homeless of the two cities are remarkably different. In Los Angeles, a majority of the homeless push around shopping carts full of recyclables. Although they do not directly process and convert the recyclables to raw goods, they do provide the first step of recycling – collection.

Although you can argue that the homeless in California are just more environmentally conscious, I’ve always thought that the California Refund Value (CRV) played a huge role in recycling. Having grown up in a poor neighborhood, I’ve seen the elderly go around town collecting cans and bottles on their spare time for an extra buck or two. Even my grandfather would pick up a can or two on his walk home when he saw an aluminum can on the side of the road. When California changed the CRV program to encourage recycling a couple of years ago, recycling jumped from 60% to 76%.

The movie also provides further insight on the finicky world of recycling. When Adham (one of the teenagers) visits Wales to tour a recycling plant, he comments that the modernized recycling plant “[has] the technology but no precision” as a glass shard passes by on its way to a landfill. Although my description of the movie depicts a dull documentary, the movie “Garbage Dreams” is far from another sterile educational documentary on recycling. By the end of the documentary, the viewer discovers the character development beyond recycling and realizes the three characters have dreams like everybody else.

The film is still screening at select cities, but I definitely recommend checking out the film if you can.


Zoe said...

Sounds like a great movie! While I was growing up in Galveston, we would either save our own cans and take them to the aluminum buyer for some extra money or leave the cans in bags on our curb and someone would invariably pick them up. I wonder how the recession and plummeting prices of recycling are affecting scavengers worldwide.

Franklin said...

I am working on an analysis of energy use required for producing and distributing bottled water, so I have been looking at information regarding recycling... in U.S. states that have deposit programs for containers (either 5 or 10 cents), the recyclign rate is greater than 70%. In states without a deposit program, recycling rates are less than 15%.