This was previously posted in a General Forum thread.
The Guatemala City garbage dump is the largest dump in Central America. About 500 tons of trash are dumped in it each day, and the 11,000 people who live and work in and near the dump rely on that garbage to survive.
Before 2005 anyone could enter and do whatever they needed to do in the garbage dump. Families lived and worked inside the dump. They built makeshift houses and lived in garbage. In 2005 there was a huge methane fire that burned for days, and the government finally came in and made some regulations. They built a wall around the dump and limited who was allowed to work in it. The last count I read was a couple of years ago and about 5,000 work badges had been issued for dump workers.
Each garbage truck is numbered based on where in the city it is coming from. The workers know the numbers of the richer neighborhoods, and fight for those trucks, as they will most likely get more valuable things. The workers use something like an "I call this truck!" system, laying a hand on a truck to claim it; once your hand is on that truck, you have the right to pick through it.
Once the truck dumps its load, people begin to scavenge. They are looking for plastic, aluminum, food and cardboard, and of course anything that they might be able to sell. The men and women (and children over the age of 12, as that is the minimum age for working in the dump) fill industrial sized plastic bags with the various ‘treasures’. When they fill a bag of garbage, they sell it to a middle-man, who then sells it to the recycling companies. For a full bag of plastic, they can make 10-12 quetzales ($1.50), for aluminum and cardboard they get 3 quetzales per pound ($0.40). On average, a full days worth of work, brings in about 40 quetzales, or $5.
A great find is discarded food, particularly from chains like McDonald's and Burger King. The workers will eat the food garbage, bring it home to their families, or sell it. They are able to sell meat to street food cart vendors, who then re-cook it.
At the end of the day, those who have not made their camp for the night in the piles of trash head across the street to their ramshackle huts. Tin and plastic and recycled materials make up the tiny, makeshift homes. The people living here are squatters and can be kicked off the land at any time. The alleyways of the neighborhood don’t look much different from the dump itself: Garbage piled high, street dogs roaming, dirty children running up and down the alleys
A Boston Globe photographer was able to get a pass into the dump a few years ago and published this photo essay on the dump. Worth a look for some amazing and powerful photos of what life is like working as a front-line "recycler."