This is the first installment of a series on the trash pickers at the Río Azul dump southeast of San José.
When you don’t recycle, they fish around in rotten waste to do it for you. They rummage through medical waste wearing your pizza boxes as hats. They don your old clothes and eat your rancid chicken and half-eaten hamburgers. Their houses are built with wood you threw away.
They’re known as buzos, and they’re doing society’s dirty work.
“It’s important to take care of the trash,” said Pedro Bolaños, a 31-year-old who has made a living from picking recyclable material out of the trash at Costa Rica’s biggest landfill since he was 13. Behind him, dump trucks and front-end-loaders kicked up putrid dust at the Río Azul landfill southeast of San José. The smell of rot is potent and inescapable.
He and 71 other workers like him aren’t just trash pickers, they’re buzos, a Spanish word for “divers.” They pay the bills by scavenging around in the trash looking for recyclable materials.
They’ve carved a lifestyle out of salvaging the waste of others to put food on their plates, clothes on their backs and roofs on their homes.
Río Azul is a 34-year-old dump that the government has been trying to turn into a sanitary landfill. But two decades after the government declared Costa Rica’s trash problem a national emergency, the dump’s administrators still can’t get together the funds to properly shut down this hill of trash, which has for years been deemed a public health problem.
Río Azul is the first attempt to properly close a landfill in a country that prides itself as a leader in the “green” revolution and which attracts hordes of tourists with its ecofriendly image.
With each day the dump remains open, the stakes continue to rise for nearby residents, some of whom have been showing up at the dump’s entrance to protest the fact that it is still accepting trash.
“They want to keep filling it and filling it.
Well, there’s no more room,” said Andrés Chavarría, who lives on the border of the swollen hill. Barbed-wire fences encircling the landfill are lined with shanty homes like Chavarría’s. Residents fear that if the landfill continues operating, history will repeat itself and there could be more toxic landslides induced by torrential downpours in the rainy season. In the past, rains have washed trash down into the residential area at the bottom of the hill, where there is also a school.
“The government has promised it will close the landfill and make an ecological park. They have to keep treating the trash.
They can’t leave it like that,” said school assistant Marlen Madriz, who said there was once a problem with vultures hanging out on the school grounds.
Río Azul’s administrator says it has only half the funds it needs to do a proper technical closure – which would include ongoing treatment of the toxic juices and methane gases created by the dump as well as the creation of an ecological park with trees, bike paths and soccer fields. But the Public Health Ministry has made it clear the dump must close soon.
And the buzos, many of whom have been foraging through society’s leftovers since they were children, don’t know what they’ll do if the landfill closes.
“We’re old and sick, we’re not going to get any jobs. I would have to get a mountain of recommendations. We’re very worried,” said Xinia Madrigal, who looked on as workers rooted through the trash.
Many fear they wouldn’t be able to compete, or are too old to learn a new skill, or that they are too specialized.
The dump’s operator, the Regional Municipal Federation of the East (FEDEMUR), says it is making an effort to train buzos in other fields and even start up a recycling plant at the site that would employ buzos. But these plans are being put off until the landfill can be closed properly.
Big Pile of Trash
Before it became a landfill seven years ago, Río Azul was a massive open-air dump where recyclers such as Juvenal Herrera slept with vultures, and cooked scavenged meat with fires from ground valves that released methane gas.
“The trash stays warm at night,” said Herrera, a particularly grimy buzo with only one remaining tooth who used to sleep amid decomposing garbage with others.
Buzos are no longer allowed to sleep in the trash, and the operator has banned the arrival of any new recyclers amid closure plans. Squatters have since built a slum bordering the landfill, many using recycled wood or tin they found in the trash to make homes.
The foulness here sticks to your clothes long after you’ve left the dump, which is inhabited by burrowing rats and stray dogs, though the vultures don’t come around as much after a recent campaign with firecrackers to scare them off. The firecracker tactics came too late for one buzo, who according to dump lore was sleeping with a hangover in the trash one morning when an early bird bit his ear, then poked his eye out.
Some buzos do hold a soft spot for the vultures, though.
“They’re buzos, too,” said Herrera, mincing words through his mouth that is all gums save for his final fang.
Though the stench is paralyzing for newcomers, it’s just part of the ambience for Herrera, known by other trash pickers as “Chuki.”
“Nothing can take away my hunger,” said the 39-year-old father of three as he looked out from his front porch across the valley to Río Azul. From his house made of recycled wood, you can see grumbling garbage trucks groan up the hill like frenzied beasts heaving and hawing before reaching the quiet, safe mountain top to give birth to several tons of stinking garbage, which the buzos pounce on like pitiless predators.
In his workplace of flying rotten dust, toxic puddles and abandoned syringes, he refuses to wear a shirt. His nappy dreadlocks swing about his leathery shoulders. The oversized pants he found in the trash wouldn’t stay up without a belt.
His work pays a few more bucks a week than cleaning houses or construction, and there’s no boss. The buzos come to work at their own leisure, he points out. But the health risks are countless – truckloads of poorly concealed medical waste and inattentive dump truck and heavy machinery drivers are high on the list.
Jimmy, for instance, was a Nicaraguan immigrant who was buried in 10 feet of trash by an unknowing dump truck driver a decade ago. Herrera said he helped dig Jimmy’s body out, but he had already suffocated while locked breathless in a prison of waste.
Mystery bags pulled out of the dump may bear hidden fruits or morbid surprises.
They’ve found cash, new clothes and food, enough copper to buy a house and larger than-life stuffed animals. They’ve also found two dead babies. Another time they thought they found a giant doll’s head wrapped in a bag, but it turned out to be a woman’s.
Buzos shrug it off – it’s all part of the job.
And in a country where citizens appear to have little interest in recycling, there’s plenty left for workers like these.