Free the gleaners!

NEW DELHI, INDIA - FEBRUARY 18: Indian workers...

Image by Getty Images via Daylife

Around the world they’re prosecuted and persecuted for doing what the world needs now–recycling.

I’m reminded of this by the latest issue of the new Indian magazine The Caravan, which features Mridhu Khullar’s profile of Banav Bibi, who sorts through trash discarded by wealthier residents of East Delhi, collecting anything that can be recycled or resold. The job has its natural hazards:

“There are glass pieces, blades, and other sharp material that have been thrown into the dustbin,” she says, observing the marks on her hands as if for the first time. “I sort very carefully, but once or twice a day, we’ll miss something, and get a cut.”

And its unnatural hazards:

“Bibi’s hands tell her story. A scratch for each time she’s been beaten and abused. A cut for every time she’s had to bail her sons out of jail. A bruise for the many times she thought she couldn’t take it any more. There are, too, the wounds that no one can see. The wounds of loss that fail to heal. The son who died, the son who left, the physically abused daughter who returned from her husband’s home. The children who never went to school, the children who never will.”

And I’m reminded of it by a glance out the rear windows of my South Side Chicago apartment, at the alley where record numbers of gleaners (a term I much prefer to “garbage pickers” or “dumpster divers”) began appearing in the waning years of the Bush Adminstration, as the economy collapsed and jobs vanished. Items that might once have lingered in the alley for a day–lamps, chairs, any kind of metal–now vanish in less than hour, even with the alley encrusted in ice.

Above the enterprises of these unintentional earth warriors loom battered signs installed by the city–NO GARBAGE PICKING. Why not? Sometimes they leave what they don’t want scattered where the merciless lake wind picks it up for urban redistribution. Often they invade the privacy of residents–though a moment’s thought should reveal the foolishness of expecting garbage to remain private. Perhaps most pertinently, they collect something of value.

Even when I lived in the spiffy and spotless village of San Luis Obispo, California, professional garbage collectors kept close watch over the resources we donated to them daily. The San Luis Garbage Company prosecuted a street entrepreneur, Richard Bermine, for taking cans people left out in recycling bins.

Likewise, Banav Bibi and her sons endure beatings from the jamadarni, the professional waste collectors in Delhi, for taking valuables they consider their own, according to The Caravan.

Somehow the virtue gets lost in the violence: that our worldwide consumption society discards far more than it should to make room for what it doesn’t yet need. And gleaners are at the forefront of social correction.

In 2002, Buenos Aires legalized garbage picking, which had been illegal under the dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet. The newly legal industry revealed new social problems: once you legalize it, how do you regulate it so that gleaners can work in safe and humane conditions? Buenos Aires appears to have found an answer: cooperatives encourage residents to sort recyclables, and some have begun collecting hazardous waste for safe disposal.

Perhaps it’s only a matter of time, in this increasingly capitalistic world, until the cooperatives become corporations that prosecute the next generation of garbage pickers. But until then, a solution seems to be working in the balance between individual enterprise and social welfare.

Speaking of that balance, not only has China passed the United States in the manufacture and implementation of alternative energy sources, it’s now zooming past the U.S. in high-speed trains.

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