Down in the dumps

Yulas dream
“strikingly visceral and plaintively moving”

Maroussia Klep, OECD Environment Directorate

There’s an old saying that “you can’t really understand someone else’s experience until you’ve walked a mile in their shoes”. Personally, I am not sure that you can ever truly understand what it is like to be that person, but you can make every effort to consider his or her perspective. Such efforts are ever more essential for policymakers in governments and international organisations, whose everyday work may impact the lives of thousands of people.

Last week, officials and experts from OECD member countries and OECD staff working on waste issues had the opportunity to plunge into the reality of a landfill during a 90 minute documentary, Something Better to Come.. And it wasn’t any old landfill: at the time of filming, the Svalka was the largest garbage dump in Europe, located 20 kilometres outside the centre of Moscow and covering an area of 500,000 square meters. On this huge mountain of trash, which was recently shut down, lived hundreds of people in a lawless society, drinking vodka to survive cold winters and worked to the bone by the mafia that ran the dump’s illegal recycling centres.

In 2000, Oscar-nominee Hanna Polak, the Polish director of the movie, was working on a project on homeless kids living in Moscow’s railway stations when she first heard of the existence of the Svalka. She managed to sneak inside despite the guards posted to keep intruders away. The misery she discovered, and the terrible human and environmental conditions, made her determined to come back and make a film in order to raise awareness of the situation. For almost ten years, she “broke in” to this enclosed area from which many others wanted to break out, to follow the lives of the deprived people living on the dump. Amidst the garbage, the young Yula, a beautiful girl with a head full of dreams and determination, slowly becomes the heroine of the movie and a symbol of hope.

The screening of the documentary at the OECD had a visibly strong impact on the audience. The director was flooded with questions at the end: How did such a situation arise? Which policies do you think would be most useful to address it? How could informal recyclers be integrated into the formal economy? What happened to Yula? How were you psychologically and morally strong enough to withstand all this…?

Even though the movie takes place in Russia, similar situations exist (or have existed) in many places around the world. For policymakers from OECD member states, where informal recyclers have been largely integrated into the formal economy in recent decades, experiencing the life of these people from so close was an eye-opener. It also created a sense of urgency to collaborate further with emerging and developing countries still confronted with these issues.

The situation on the Svalka, which was eventually closed in 2007, shows the intricate link between environmental and social issues. When Hanna started making the film, each Russian produced around 350 kilograms of waste a year on average. That figure is now approaching 600 kilograms, and it all has to be treated. Simply shutting down landfills to reduce pollution without considering the impacts on informal workers who depend on it for their livelihood may be devastating for those people. In addition, it fails to take into account the valuable work they accomplish by providing garbage collection services almost for free.

Building on this idea, a colleague in the audience shared an inspiring story: La Chureca in Nicaragua was the largest landfill in Central America and used to be home to about 1000 people living in extreme poverty. They suffered terrible health conditions, doing arduous, yet very important work as informal recyclers. In 2012, thanks to support from the Spanish Agency for International Cooperation and Development (AECID), the dump site was sealed to create a new energy generation plant, which would help provide stable and decent jobs as well as subsidised housing to the families who were living and working on the dump.

As the Nicaragua story reveals, terrible situations such as the ones witnessed in the movie can be improved with efforts and a genuine willingness to make change happen. By bringing reality inside the walls of the OECD, Hanna’s documentary has made a powerful contribution to raising awareness on the issue – hopefully for “something better to come”.

We’d like to thank Unico van Kooten and the Dutch Waste Management Association who supported the organisation of the screening and visit of the director to the OECD.

Useful links

OECD work on waste

Guest author

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