BasuHero: When help doesn't go to waste
‘Basurero lang yan’, meaning ‘They’re only waste collectors’ in Tagalog, is a common expression that Antonio ‘Tony’ Bracero has heard repeatedly over the years.
Waste collecting is often perceived as a dirty and undignified job, and overlooked in Philippine society due to the nature of the work being associated with trash.
“One time, someone covered their nose as I passed them. I immediately know they think I smell bad, because they see me in my work attire,” recounts Tony.
“[But] why would I be ashamed of what I do when that’s the reality? My work is honourable, so why would I be. I work to provide for my family.”
For 20 years, Tony, a 67-year-old grandfather of eight, has worked 11-hour days gleaning recyclable waste from dumpsites and landfills, starting at dawn and reaching home in the evening. Materials such as plastic, metal and used copper are prized items that find their way into his sack. Later in the afternoon, he brings his collection for the day to a junk shop, where they weigh the items and pay Tony his daily wage. On good days, he earns about 300 pesos (US$6).
Tony shares, “I work hard to provide for my family, my own blood and sweat is my investment.”
Picking rubbish is not easy. Accidents happen regularly at the landfill, caused by sharp objects, like broken glass and nails. While on wet days, the mountains of trash are prone to landslides. And the thing that waste collectors fear most — having a bulldozer run over them.
When the COVID-19 pandemic swept across the Philippines in January 2020, it heightened the dangers of the job, since it is no longer just his safety that Tony fears for, but his loved ones’, as well.
“With all of the waste at the landfill, the virus could potentially be there. Even if we are afraid of it, we don’t have any choice. If we don’t work at the landfill, we don’t have any source of income.,” says Tony. “We have very little, and we have to work for our family.”
Waste collectors like Tony had no choice but to continue their essential work, even if it meant exposing themselves to the virus. Without these frontline workers, garbage would have piled up and caused sanitation problems.
But Tony’s, and by extension his family’s, health was put at greater risk since he did not have any protective gear.
So before stepping foot into his house in Montalban, Rizal, Philippines, at the end of the day, he removes his purple uniform, and thoroughly cleans himself and his boots, leaving no trace from the landfill.
“I’m afraid that I might carry the virus home and spread it to my family. That would be heartbreaking. It’s really risky but no choice, it’s my livelihood.” says Tony.
SERVING THE BASUHEROES
“I read an article about how waste collectors disinfected with Emperador [brandy], and learnt through further research that they did not have enough PPE (personal protective equipment),” shares 21-year-old Samantha Eala, co-founder of Baon Para sa Basuhero.
While “Basuhero” is a play of the word “basurero” which means waste collector in Tagalog, “Baon Para sa Basuhero” is the literal translation of ‘provision for waste collectors.’
In the Philippines, there are door-to-door waste collectors, and informal waste collectors, like Tony, who live in or near landfills and dumpsites segregating the junk.
Together with her friends, Samantha started Baon Para sa Basuhero, an online fundraising initiative to provide food aid and PPE to this high-risk group.
“Edward (Tony’s son) reached out to us via Facebook. ‘They don’t have medicine and food in the community,’ I remember him saying they only had biscuits left to eat,” recounts Samantha. “At that time, our scope was only within Metro Manila, and they were situated in Montalban.”
Montalban is 33km away from Metro Manila, and is home to 300 waste collectors.
“We started communicating ,and with some coordination we raised enough money to support the community. We arranged the logistics and went to Montalban,” says Samantha. “We recognised that they are having a difficult time during COVID. They are part of the waste sector too.”
“THEY’RE ONLY BASUREROS”
“When we arrived at Montalban, we were saddened to see their situation,” says Samantha. “Of course it is not enough to be happy or sad about it, but it’s important what we do next. That’s why it’s important to reach more communities.” says Samantha.
“They need the full-body PPE because they deal with our medical waste” explains Samantha. “They are exposed to our waste, to our carelessness, especially when we dispose of our masks and all those waste items.”
She continues, “They also need provisions for their everyday needs because during this time of COVID, they are on skeletal work so not all of them are working. They need provisions of rice, canned goods, and vegetables.”
Sam’s desire to provide the community with support, is in part inspired by the support that the same community has been giving to society in spite of the negativity being thrown at them. Waste collectors are often perceived to be “lower in status than everybody” due to their association with trash, despite their essential service to the community.
“Waste workers like Tatay Tony are definitely very important during this pandemic. People think they are just waste workers, but they don’t think their work is dignified work.”
WAYS TO HELP
According to 2018 data from the Department of Environment and Natural Resources, Metro Manila produced an average of 9.3 million kg of trash each day, accounting for 25 per cent of the trash in the entire Philippine archipelago.
“If there are no collectors, the whole of Montalban would be covered [in waste]. Especially if there is rain, the plastics end up in the Marikina river,” says Tony, explaining the significance of his work. “If there is a storm or flooding, we will go under a pile of trash.”
While waste collectors like Tony find work sifting through recyclables in the daily trash of others, the sheer amount of trash being generated remains a problem in the Philippines. Samantha is always encouraging people to join her in being part of the solution.
Says Samantha, “The most important thing we can do is to reduce our consumption. If we don’t need to buy new clothes then don’t buy new clothes. If you don’t need plastic, please don’t. That’s when consumption starts. And waste problems happen because of overconsumption of people—we buy things that we don’t need that’s why most of these things end up in the landfill.”
Another practical solution, Samantha suggests, is to segregate waste materials before disposing them as this makes it easier for waste collectors to re-purpose the items.
“Once we segregate, it’s going to be much easier for them to sell it for recycling or to make use of it,” says Samantha.
To date, Baon Para sa Basuhero has reached out to 2,300 beneficiaries, including waste collectors and their families. But Samantha shares that her team’s efforts will continue.
“When we started Baon Para sa Basuhero we thought it was going to be a short-term thing. But COVID lasted so long so we kept extending. As long as there are people who need our help, we will help.”
She adds, “As long as we have monetary support or support in kind we’re able to go beyond the pandemic.”
Tony, who now wears protective gear thanks to BasuHero shares, “I am very thankful for people like [Baon Para sa Basuhero] that provides rice and canned goods for our community of basureros. We are very grateful, especially me.”
LET’S TALK ABOUT IT:
What are some ways to provide help to waste collectors in your community? Share your ideas with us here.