Turning trash into treasure

A multi-purpose cooperative is thriving in Manila's impoverished Smokey Mountain through recycling and other profitable enterprises

Smokey Mountain began in the 1950s as an unplanned dumpsite at Barrio Mandaragat, a fishing community on the shore of Manila Bay just north of the Philippine capital. As the trash mounted and the slums of Manila’s Tondo district enveloped the area, it became a magnet for poor migrants.

A stream of new arrivals—eager to trade poverty in the provinces for opportunity in the capital—squatted on and around the mound of trash to eke out their living as scavengers. In the 1980s, the population climbed to 30,000, and Smokey Mountain became a showcase for urban squalor and misery – perhaps the worst manifestation of Manila’s growing garbage problem.

Without an effective system for managing waste, the Philippines capital was overwhelmed with a tidal wave of refuse. At the time, an estimated 6,700 tons was generated per day. Of that amount, approximately 720 tons was recycled or composted. The balance—some 6,000 tons daily—was either hauled to city dump sites like Smokey Mountain; dumped illegally on private land, in rivers, creeks, and Manila Bay; or openly burned, adding to the heavily polluted air. This garbage problem posed a serious health risk.

In 1990, the government resolved to close the Smokey Mountain dump, which nevertheless continued to receive truckloads of trash for another 5 years. In 2001, the government finished moving the informal settlers into temporary housing in open warehouses nearby. Three-quarters of the 20-hectare mountain was bulldozed and carted off to create a level area on which to build 5-story walkups. Since 2004, some 15,000 people have moved into these tenements. However, with the smoldering dump gone, most residents also lost their main source of income – scavenging and selling the waste.

To improve livelihood opportunities for some of these residents and also improve environmental conditions around the tenements, the Asian Development Bank (ADB), through its Poverty and Environment Fund (PEF), supported a multi-purpose cooperative that would help transform the former waste heap into a place of hope and opportunity for its members. This cooperative demonstrates how residents working together can generate the income they need to pursue their hopes and dreams for themselves and their children.

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Project page: Smokey Mountain Remediation and Development Project