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Turning A Million Cubic Yards Of Post-Typhoon Trash Into Jobs

In an open dump, in a village outside of Tacloban in the central Philippines, we're sloshing through rainwater and leachate — that's the goo that comes out of rotting trash — while Tim Walsh surveys the site.

"Just walk on the dry bit," he says. "I've got used to the smell over the years and you get immune to it. But for most people the smell of decaying rubbish is not really very pleasant."

Workers in the UNDP program are paid 260 pesos a day. Some of the materials are recycled and re-purposed.
RV Mitra/UNDP / Flickr
Workers in the UNDP program are paid 260 pesos a day. Some of the materials are recycled and re-purposed.

Walsh has a unique job: after a major natural disaster, he's the man who shows up to disaster zones to clean up the debris and put people to work. We'd like to call him the disaster garbage man, but he prefers waste management specialist.

He's a British consultant for the United Nations Development Program, and he's seen it all: the 2004 tsunami in Indonesia, several earthquakes, and now the aftermath of the typhoon that hit the Philippines in November last year.

Amid all that destruction, he's learned there's also opportunity, even in a garbage dump. His UNDP cash-for-work program has helped keep the economy going in Tacloban, and he hopes the recycled materials his teams collect will help form the basis for small businesses — such as furniture-making — as they have in other disaster zones.

What To Do With Garbage, Besides Letting it Rot?

Walsh came to Tacloban in mid-November, a week after Typhoon Haiyan devastated this area. He estimates the city was covered in a million cubic yards of debris.

"That's like your average American football field ... 30 feet of waste on top of a football field, multiply that by 10," he says. "And you think, well, what the hell are you going to do with all of this?"

Mountains of garbage closed off entire neighborhoods from the street. The coastal highway became a narrow path, flanked on either side by snapped rafters, twisted tin and the crumbled cement of what used to be people's homes.

A typhoon victim walks past a destroyed church outside her home in Tacloban last November.
Nicolas Asfouri / AFP/Getty Images
AFP/Getty Images
A typhoon victim walks past a destroyed church outside her home in Tacloban last November.

Workers have cleared most of that away to these temporary garbage dumps. Walsh does a lot of debris cleanup and making dumps more sanitary, but most of his job is figuring out what to do with garbage besides letting it rot.

"What's interesting for us is, these guys here scavenging, they're taking out pretty much anything they can sell," he says.

In the distance, a couple of men are braving the rain, sifting through the dump looking for tin, plastic and anything else that might earn them a few pesos. Most are career waste pickers, the poorest of the poor. Walsh says making life better for these people is one place to start his work.

"Even something as simple as giving a waste picker ... a bicycle with a sidecar," he says. "They then have a means of carrying the stuff that they collect to the junk shops or whatever. That often helps."

As would a plastic shredder for discarded water bottles — that would allow junk shops to shred up plastic bottles and compact them, so they could ship four times what they would if the bottles remained intact. With equipment like an extruder and a blow-molding machine, a rural community can have their own mini recycled plastics factory.

'Very Good Return On Investment'

From the plastic that's mixed up in the rubbish around us, Walsh says, it's possible to make plastic bags, string, bottles, buckets, chairs and more.

Coconut husks can be turned into doormats, and the millions of trees uprooted by the storm could produce enough lumber to rebuild most of the destroyed homes. Walsh says they could train carpenters to mill salvaged timber and make them into chairs and desks for schools.

After the tsunami in Indonesia, his UNDP program set up small businesses based on re-purposing debris.

"Within the first year of them being set up, those 160 businesses have made $6 million," he says. "So we've got very good return on investment."

It was his experience in Indonesia — finding people work, and seeing the smile on their faces when they see that something good can come out of the destruction, that there's a chance to rebuild — that got Walsh hooked on being a disaster garbage man in the first place.

"And here, if anything it's more important, because less people died and more people have lost their livelihoods here," he says. "They're still alive, we've got to give them livelihoods to do, otherwise, again in our response to the whole Typhoon Haiyan, we failed."

These jobs won't bring back their old lives, but just like in Indonesia, Walsh hopes that the work of clearing up the rubble will help the people of Tacloban find a way to move forward.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Aurora Almendral