According to the Environmental Protection agency, in 2010, Americans generated about 250 million tons of trash. That is 4.6 pounds of trash per person, per day. In other countries, the rate of trash generation is similar and there are fewer regulations in some places for how this trash is managed. One man’s trash truly is another man’s treasure in places where a person can comb through the refuse and find scrap metal to sell or other unwanted, but valuable items. In places where many people are extremely poor, there are individuals who are willing to not only risk getting sick, but even death by making a living mining the trash. This week’s episode of Taboo explores how some individuals make their living digging through trash, a job many would consider unthinkable.

What is a Landfill, Exactly?

A modern landfill in the United States is actually quite different from a dump, which is where most of us imagine our trash going. It is not a hole dug in the ground where trash is dumped and buried but rather, a well-engineered facility that complies with federal laws that regulate location, design and operation. Places where solid waste are deposited must be designed to protect the environment from contaminants that could get into groundwater. It can either be a sanitary landfill which utilizes a clay liner to isolate the trash or a municipal solid waste (MSW) landfill, which uses a plastic liner to keep the trash from contaminating the surrounding area. The landfill also requires a means of safely gathering the methane that accumulates as the trash degrades.

What Happens to the Trash?

Since a landfill is dry, contained, and protected from the environment, the trash does not degrade quickly like in a dump. Landfills are not designed to break down trash, merely to bury it. Once a landfill is shut down the site must be monitored and maintained for up to 30 years. The groundwater especially is monitored for any contamination. While this is a much better situation than an open dump, researchers are looking into new ways to manage trash, breaking it down faster and perhaps even utilizing the methane gas the trash produces for fuel.

The Dangers of an Open Dump.

In Guatemala City, Guatemala, they use an open dump system rather than a landfill to handle 500 tons of trash a day. It is a 40-acre dump and includes medical waste as well as other toxins that are leaking from the dump and into the surrounding area. The methane emissions from the dump are also not managed well and caused it to catch fire in 2005. The Council on Hemispheric Affairs, a nonprofit research organization states that thousands of squatters have made their homes on the edges of the dump, which is one of the largest in Central America. There is no question that this is a dangerous place and yet, many people feel that digging through the trash is the only way to feed their families, even though they risk their lives. It is far more dangerous than the landfills we utilize in the United States. So is it taboo to dig through a toxic site like this or simply the only way to survive?

Sometimes, homes can even start looking like trash dumps. Check out what the extreme house-cleaners face on Taboo: Nasty Jobs, this Sunday at 10P et/pt.