Surrounded by luscious jungles, the cool, blue Pacific, and encompassed by fresh Ecuadorian air, it was only natural I go visit an open dump landfill, right? If you've been following my adventures for a while now, my visit to a landfill in a different country will be no surprise to you. When I launched Earthub, on January 1, 2019, one of my first posts was of me visiting a landfill in the Dominican Republic. When launching Earthub, my main objective was (and is) showing proof of how things really are and to be as transparent as possible.
Puerto Plata - January 2019
If you're reading this in the same hemisphere of where I am writing this, we are extremely lucky to have the infrastructure we do. We might complain about the potholes in the roads, out-of-date buildings, and the curbside recycling system in place (that we know doesn't work due to human behaviour), but I assure you, we are very fortunate. Canada does rank in the top ten spots for the best waste management systems in the world. However, I think I can speak for all of us when I say our frustration does continue to grow with the lack of proof or reassurance with what is happening to our waste.
But, imagine those countries with no waste management infrastructure. To better demonstrate the development of Canada's systems in comparison to other countries, let's go through the historic trends of landfills from the 1900s on...
Open Dumps: if not obvious in the name, garbage is dumped in a designated spot of land
Sanitary Dumps: dumping in a designated location and burying the waste
Engineered Landfilling: compacted garbage piles (still buried) that has a barrier below for leachate drainage through method of pipe and gravel (leachate is the yucky liquids that mesh together in our garbage piles, whether from the garbage itself or rain)
Bioreactor Landfilling: anaerobic conditions are manipulated in a digestion treatment plant to breakdown the organic material within the waste streams
Incineration: burning the waste material (typically happens when there is restricted land space)
Open dumping was the first way to 'properly' dispose of your garbage way back in the day, with no knowledge (at first) of the environmental harm it had. The first factor that really changed things was the smell of the garbage. After that, it was acknowledged that the exposure of the garbage could also be harmful to animals who were picking through it. This evolved things to Sanitary Dumping, where instead, the garbage was buried to capture the stench and to prevent animals from easily accessing the garbage. But as time went on, it was realized that the leachate (the liquid/rain seeping through garbage and carrying along chemicals with it) was reaching the soil and groundwater and therefore, negatively impacting the composition. This is where things took a turn historically for a more technical solution (and my favourite part); when Engineered Landfilling was implemented. This method of landfilling went an extra step to drain that leachate elsewhere to prevent harm to our soils and groundwater. This was done by a barrier, stone, and piping. What happened to the leachate once collected? It re-directed to an engineered facility to then be used as energy! As the technical side of landfilling was developing, Bioreactor Landfilling emerged which is responsible for manipulations within various conditions (anaerobic, aerobic, facultative) to break down the waste material at an accelerated pace.
The development of landfilling techniques has been on-going for many years and it will continue to do so as more avenues are explored. Of course, for the most part, this will only occur in first and second world countries. Some second and many third world countries do not have the financial means to develop modern day infrastructure, let alone landfills. The most common type of landfill in third world countries is open dumping, along with some incineration amongst the piles of garbage in the open dump.
To shed light on these open dumps, I make a point to go visit them when I am travelling. It is important to reiterate what I said earlier, we are extremely lucky to have the infrastructure we do. During my trip to Ecuador, I had some down time while in Montanita so this was an opportunity to go track down a landfill. I am used to the strange looks I get as I ask for transportation to see a landfill but it's even more difficult not speaking the language of the country I am vistiting. I whipped out the Google translate and described what I was looking for. What I gathered from the resort's front desk staff was that it would be $50USD each way to take me to the dump nearby. I went back and forth on deciding if I really wanted to spend $100 on this experience. It didn't take long before I found myself packing up my drone and getting the front desk to call me a cab. The drive was 24 minutes south of Montanita:
As we drove along, windows down and the fresh breeze in my face from the ocean, the only thing I could think about was how I never wanted to leave. Life seemed casual and simple here, unlike my hectic life back in Canada. The feeling was brief given what I was about to witness but for the time being, I took it all in.
For anyone who knows me well, you know that I constantly have Google Maps open (on the satellite layer), exploring every crevice of the planet...just for fun. I get this (weird?) hobby from my Dad; we love to see what a place has to offer whether we're on our way to said destination or it's just another bucketlist item! Cruising down the coast, headed towards the landfill, my Google Map antics were no different. I zoomed in to see potential spots that we could be going to and I saw this big plot of land, instantly knowing this was where we had to be headed:
The driver actually passed the entry that I was zoomed in on, looking around confused. I showed him this area on the map and up the hill, along a sandy road, we went. My initial thought was, are we going to get in trouble? You could never do this in Canada or the States! There was no sign of anyone monitoring the entrance which consequently revealed that this place was truly a free for all to dump any garbage they wanted to. I am not fluent in Spanish but I suspect my assumption was right...
As the tiny car wrestled through the sandy road, the dust crawled towards me and it was no longer an ocean breeze I was inhaling through the open window. First it was the dust and as we approached the mounds of garbage, second came the unpleasant scent. The taxi driver stopped at the top of the hill and out I jumped with my phone, the drone, and not an inkling of hesitation.
And here I was. At the top of a hill overlooking piles upon piles of garbage collected in an open dump:
Each time I do this type of adventure to a landfill, very peculiar emotions come over me; thrilled and excited that I am witnessing what I want to show the world through Earthub but simultaneously, I am shattered and desolate. I smile as the taxi driver walks alongside me in an open dump yet my heart is sinking behind the smile. I set the drone on the ground and become the pilot behind my phone application. The sun is beaming across the screen and I can barely see what footage I am capturing. The quick flight lands, with the drone no longer white and black but now a shade of light grey/brown. Typical me always in rush mode, not wanting to take up more time from the taxi driver, I speed up my personal excursion.
I look out in the distance, watching the many moving figures picking through the garbage, with their puzzled looks as they watch me back, gazing past the horizon of junk. I snap more photos, take some videos, and think about how this would never be a thing where we lived, without a hefty fine that is. We walk back to the dust covered taxi and pull away from the heaps of garbage. My eyes are glued out the window as if I will never see this exact image again...because I won’t. I capture this memory to lock it in my brain forever.
The drive back is a bit disheartening as my mind wanders about how we could do better, on a global scale, to prevent the dangers of the health exposures that the garbage pickers I saw were putting themselves through. The toxic air I just put myself through. Both parties, intentionally putting themselves in a position of multiple health risks but one party knowing better. I think about the preventative measures we could be taking to create and implement systems everywhere to protect nature and ourselves. We hit a small bump and it is then I realize that my forehead was glued to the window, as if my stare across the Pacific Ocean would bring me all of the solutions. I teleport back to reality, acknowledging the privilege I have to travel, to be exploring a beautiful place on the planet.
We hang a right and I have arrived back at Nativa Bamboo Ecolodge. With the two of us speaking different languages, I confirm the amount with the taxi driver as I reach in my bag for cash. It turns out, I completely misunderstood the $50USD and it was actually $15USD each way! Bonus for me but it just goes to show the lengths I would go to for transportation to an open dump landfill. I mean any average person would spend this kind of money to go to a landfill on vacation, right?! I hand him a $50 as he expresses his gratitude for the tip but little did he know how much gratitude I had for him being a great sport and taking me on this random, not very tourist-like, adventure.
Fast forward to a year later, here I am back in Canada, constantly observing the structure of our waste management systems. And yet with so much structure, in comparison to this open dump landfill I witnessed in Ecuador, there is still so much room for improvement. We can improve our engineered landfills or better yet, refuse and reduce beyond our current limits. So it is with Earthub, that I hope to spread awareness and face the reality of the waste we are going through. One of the biggest issues, in my opinion, is the average person (is not getting a taxi to an open dump), is resorting to the out of sight, out of mind mentality.
We all know that saying, right?
Don’t throw your junk in my backyard.