Just outside of Kingston Jamaica is a shantytown called Riverton City. The small community is built right on the edges of the overloaded Riverton City Landfill, the main dumping ground for Kingston's waste. The landfill has a history of catching fire. Serious fires have occurred twelve times in the last ten years. The most recent fire was in March 2015. It burned for six days, and caused more then 3000 people in the area to seek medical treatment for respiratory issues. The National Environment and Planning Agency of Jamaica recently released a report confirming that the fire released 29 toxins into the atmosphere, including the cancer-causing chemical benzine.
This recurring issue has been of serious concern to residents of Kingston. The Jamaica Environment Trust, a non-profit environmental advocacy group, released a statement in response to the most recent fire criticizing the National Solid Waste Management Authority, the organization that manages the dump, for unsatisfactory security. Many people gain access to the dump to search for salvageable materials to sell. The JET statement suggested that these fires are started by people scavenging in the dump site. Commentators with the Jamaica Observer have suggested that the NSWMA is preventing tighter security measures due to the fact that the local economy of Riverton City is dependent on recycling scrap materials gathered from the landfill.
I was contacted by Mark Truenfels, a sculptor from Northern California. He told me about a group that he works with in Riverton City which is a part of this informal recycling economy. Mark is an American who served as a Peace Corps volunteer in Jamaica about fifteen years ago. He agreed to go with me to Riverton City to introduce me to some of the people who live and work right at the edge of the notorious landfill.
During Mark's service in the Peace Corps, he worked with a group of men who ran an informal aluminum foundry. They had been casting aluminum in the open air, and Mark helped them get a USAID grant to build a simple workshop. Mark is still involved in this project. He returns to Riverton every year to help develop new patterns for the group to cast.
Mark took me to the workshop in late May of 2015. The workshop is not officially inside the landfill, it's down the road about 1 KM away, but that's a technical distinction, as the entire area is surrounded by piles of waste. As I stepped out of the car, the first thing that struck me was the smell. It was a mixture of rot, and burning garbage. We walked up to a man with thick long dreadlocks. He was shoveling a large pile of straw mixed with chicken organs. It was feed for his pigs. Mark introduced me to Tony Duncan, the leader of the project.
Tony took me into the workshop to show me his work. He purchases aluminum from local scrap metal dealers, melts down the aluminum in a makeshift forge, and recasts the aluminum into new products. He transforms car parts and airplane wings into pots and pans, but he also mades a few decorative pieces. He showed me two decorative plates that he offered. One bore the image of Bob Marley. I asked Tony to make one for me.
Tony casts aluminum in two-part sand molds. He put the Bob Marley plate inside a wooden frame on the floor of the workshop, and shoveled black sand into the frame on top of the plate. When the sand was piled high, he got up on top of the pile, and compacted the sand firmly under his feet. He then flipped the frame, and carefully cut away bits of sand so that the plate was half embedded. He stacked another wooden frame on top of the first and repeated the process of piling sand into the frame and compacting the sand under his feet, but this time he put a pipe into the sand to create a hollow channel for molten aluminum to flow.
Once the sand was compacted, he removed the top block, and carefully extracted the pipe and the plate from the sand, revealing a perfect imprint. Once the plate was removed he stacked the two compacted sand blocks, one on top of the other, so that the imprint cavity was in the center of the blocks. He removed the wooden frames and piled sand around the sides of the mold, to prevent molten aluminum from seeping out.
Tony made about ten molds in this fashion and then went outside to start up the makeshift furnace. It was composed of an old oil drum, and it was heated by burning used motor oil. Tony did not have a proper ceramic crucible in which to melt the aluminum, so he used an iron pot. Iron has a higher melting point than aluminum, but even the iron pot would only survive a few trips through the furnace before it burned through. Black smoke billowed out of the furnace. It would take about thirty minutes to reach a temperature that would melt the aluminum, so Mark and I took a walk around Riverton.
Mark showed me an area near the workshop that had been the site of a community garden some fifteen years ago. It was now covered in piles of broken porcelain toilets. A dump truck pulled off the main road and drove to the clearing in the rubble where we were standing. The driver dumped the load of garbage into a pile on the ground. Three people appeared around the pile and waved at the dump truck as it drove away. They picked through the pile separating the scrap metal. They were scrap metal scavengers.
I spoke with one of them — a woman named Donna. She told me that she used to live in Queens, New York, but she now lived in Beverly Hills, a posh section of Kingston. She didn't seem excited about revealing too many details, but she did indicate that she had some arrangement with particular dump truck drivers, to deliver loads with valuable scrap metal directly to her. Donna would sell her scrap metal to a dealer, who would then sell some of the metal to local buyers like Tony, though it was rumored that the largest buyers were Chinese corporate entities.
We returned to the workshop and the aluminum was molten and ready to pour. Tony removed the iron pot from the furnace with long heavy tongs. The iron pot was glowing red. He carried it from the furnace to the sand molds, and he carefully poured the molten aluminum into the hole in the top of each mold.
Thick steam poured out of the molds and the aluminum quickly cooled inside the sand. The smell was harsh, a bit like ozone. The workshop was obscured in a white haze as each of the molds was filled with molten aluminum. After only a few minutes, Tony used a sharpened wooden plank to push the aluminum casts free of the sand, destroying the molds.
The solidified aluminum casts were still hot to the touch, so Tony held them up with tongs to inspect the work. The decorative plates and dutch ovens which Tony produced regularly were perfect, but Mark had brought several new casting patterns to test out. A small statue of a horse, and a decorative bundt cake pattern had not produced encouraging results. Much of the detail in these patterns had not been captured in the mold. They couldn't be salvaged, and the aluminum would be melted down and re-cast in another mold.
Mark and I left the workshop to get lunch at a nearby chicken stand. I asked him about the results of the day's casting. He explained that Tony's casting method had a few inherent complications. The sand that he used for the molds was slowly degraded by exposure to intense heat. Every casting would cause the sand grains to fracture and become a bit smaller, thereby losing cohesiveness. If Tony could use a higher quality sand, something with a small amount of clay, the molds would more easily hold together. Tony also used brick dust as a parting compound. The brick dust was sprinkled onto the mold to make it easier to separate the aluminum cast from the sand. If Tony was to use talcum powder, rather than the brick dust, there would be fewer irregularities in the surface of the aluminum cast.
The problem with adopting these methods was the cost. Higher quality sand and talcum powder would not cost much, but they would have to be purchased. Mark wanted to invest a bit more money into the process, but Tony prefers to keep costs to an absolute minimum. Tony only pays for aluminum scrap and motor oil. Mark admitted that it was hard to argue with Tony's philosophy, when higher production costs and better quality castings might not necessarily produce more sales.
“There are easier ways to cast aluminum,” Mark said, “but there's no cheaper way.”
Tony's process allows him to recycle aluminum for maximum profit. This is not surprising, as aluminum is the easiest and most profitable material to recycle. Mark and I visited several other recycling enterprises later that week. We visited one group of women who collected glass bottles from the dump, meticulously cleaned them, and then sold them back to the company in Kingston that had produced them.
Seemingly every material that can possibly be salvaged is being exploited by someone. Valuable materials are being sent into Riverton as waste, and without any government subsidy, the people of Riverton are finding ways to reuse the materials and make money doing it. They are demonstrating that recycling can be a profitable enterprise.
This enterprise carries a heavy toll for the people who pursue it. The people of Riverton are right next to the dump. The toxic chemicals released in a major fire affect them more acutely than anyone else in Kingston, and Mark believes that toxic air is not only a problem during a fire, he suspects that toxic particles are mixed in with the ever-present dust which is kicked up by dump trucks on dirt roads. Mark believes that toxins in the dust could explain the high incidence of birth defects in Riverton.
When Mark and I returned to the workshop on that first day, we found small garbage fire was burning just a few meters from the road. It was on one of the piles of broken porcelain, so there was little danger of the fire spreading. I asked Mark about the fires in the dump. He told me that he doubted that anyone sets fires maliciously, but that fires in the dump are often set for cooking, or clearing debris, or to melt aluminum off of an old car. These fires just get out of hand and spread. He said that he had heard rumors that fires could sometimes start spontaneously in the dump, but he had no way to verify that theory.
We went into the workshop, and found Tony putting the finishing touches on my plate. He promised to have it ready by the next day. He charged me approximately fifteen US dollars. It was a pretty good profit margin, as the metal in the plate probably cost him about one US dollar.
One of Tony's partners told me later that these decorative pieces are a much better product for the group than the pots and pans. There are a lot of local aluminum foundries making pots and pans, so the price must be very low to be competitive. The decorative pieces that Tony produces are unique, and can be sold for a much higher profit margin.
The decorative pieces are also much safer. Tony works with post-consumer aluminum, which is often full of impurities. Tony heats the aluminum to a higher temperature than necessary to melt the aluminum, approximately 2000 degrees Fahrenheit. This is hot enough to cause some metallic impurities to vaporize or separate as slag on the surface of the aluminum. Unfortunately, it may not separate lead. If a bit of lead solder got into the molten aluminum, it would likely not be separated out in the slag. A tiny bit of lead in a decorative piece is not a health risk, but a bit of lead in a cooking pot could leech into food.
In my research of Riverton, people like Tony had been referred to as “unfortunates.” In all the articles about the recent landfill fire, the residents of Riverton had been talked about, but no one had actually talked to them. The people of Riverton were being cast as victims.
During my week in Riverton I visited numerous failed projects which had been initiated by outside organizations designed to help the residents of Riverton improve their living conditions. The most notable was Riverton Meadows, a housing development on the edge of town. It was part of a government initiative called Operation PRIDE. The goal of Operation PRIDE was to build modern housing for residents of Riverton. People would be given the opportunity to buy these homes for a reduced rate, in exchange for helping with the construction. Many people in Riverton signed up for the project, but the government funding fell through, and most of the homes were never completed. Those that were finished were sold at a much higher price than originally advertised. No residents of Riverton could afford the houses, and they were sold to people from outside the community.
Operation PRIDE is just one example of a project that was imposed on the community that did not produce any meaningful benefit. These projects don't work, because they treat the people of Riverton as victims, who will be happy with any kind of assistance. This is an erroneous notion, and costly. Riverton City is not a refugee camp full of unfortunates, it's a community of entrepreneurs, and the people who live there are key stakeholders in local waste management policy. Their physical and economic well-being are intricately tied to the decisions made regarding the landfill. The people of Riverton don't need charitable projects to save them. They need representation in a new waste management plan.
Non-profit groups like the Caribbean Policy Research Institute, and the Jamaican Environmental Trust have identified proper waste sorting and recycling as key activities for better waste management in Kingston. The people of Riverton are currently doing these very activities, and they are making a profit in the process. By including the people of Riverton into a waste management strategy, the NSWMA can help ensure that the residents of Riverton are still able to make a living on recycling. They can help scavengers find better ways of sorting scrap metal that will not cause toxic fires. Better sorting strategies can help people like Tony ensure that his products are not contaminated with lead. Enfranchising the people of Riverton into a new waste management policy is beneficial for all concerned.
At the end of our first day in Riverton, I took a few minutes to clean the dust off my camera. I asked Mark if he knew why the road wasn't paved. He told me that it actually had been paved years ago. A company had been awarded a paving contract, but the people of Riverton blocked the work from proceeding until they were paid a bribe. Mark said that the bribe was paid to the community, and the work progressed, but this left the company with very little money for materials, and the work was done cheaply. The cheap pavement quickly crumbled under the weight of the dump trucks.
Mark's story perfectly illustrated the dangers of casting the people of Riverton as victims, and the futility of making plans for a community without first enfranchising residents. The NSWMA has recently created a waste management improvement plan. Though the specifics are not known, part of the plan includes paving the road to the landfill.
- Alan Toth