A visit to the trashy side of San Miguel

While living “off the grid” may have an ecologically virtuous ring to it, some definite inconveniences come with the lifestyle, in this case having no garbage pick-up for three weeks, which sent us looking for the San Miguel trash dump.      

The location of the dump is apparently a well guarded secret, and only Stew’s homing-pigeon memory and sense of direction led us to a most unlikely location: A stretch of the highway to Dolores Hidalgo, a few miles outside of town, which has been christened by local realtors as the “Golden Corridor.” 

Both sides of the Corridor are flanked by guarded, monumental entrances to residential subdivisions with names such as Viña del Cielo (“Vineyard of Heaven”) offering Tuscan villas, French country homes and Mexican-modern palazzos, some with prices in the millions. That’s dollars, not pesos. 

Chapel of Our Lady of the Landfill.

Stew insisted that sometime ago he had seen garbage trucks coming in an out somewhere around there. So we drove for over an hour, going down side roads, asking for directions, and making several U-turns until we found a nicely paved road that turned into cobble-stone, parallel to railroad tracks—and a garbage truck headed in the opposite direction. 

Still, we missed a final turn-off onto a narrow dirt road that finally led us to a stone arch welcoming visitors to the “San Miguel Sanitary Landfill.” There had been no prior signage, except a growing amount of loose trash along the final kilometer before the main gate. 

Also greeting visitors by the entrance was an unfinished, open-air chapel to the Virgin of Guadalupe. It sat at the foot of a water tower that in combination with the chapel took on the appearance of an outsize belfry. 

Once inside we were greeted by a polite attendant who looked rather incredulously at us and our late-model Chevy Colorado pickup filled with household garbage.  He must have thought: Are you guys lost? 

He explained that there was a fee, based on weight, for dumping garbage and directed us to drive onto a truck scale. He would weigh us now and when we left empty, and charge us for the difference, with a minimum fee of $70 pesos, or $3.5 dollars, per load.  

From there he pointed us to a narrow dirt road to the right, past a couple of idle bulldozers, that led to a high point overlooking a landscape of trash awaiting a final shove into the landfill below. 

Working at the landfill. 

We paused a hundred feet before the final pile of trash and took in the unsettling sight of dozens of people—men, women and childrenand twice as many stray dogs, knee-deep in trash, feverishly scavenging for any saleable items.  

The long shadows projected by the late-afternoon sun gave the scene a particularly apocalyptic appearance. 

Before we had backed up the truck to a full stop near a pile of trash, two or three young guys already had jumped into the bed and cleaned it out. A boy around ten or eleven years old approached me pleadingly and I impulsively handed him $50 pesos or $2.50 dollars for something, I suspect to salve my discomfort.   
I had read about the “pepeneros” or entire families who not only made a living sifting through the garbage at Mexico City’s vast dumps but who also lived there, something that seems inconceivable given the unsanitary conditions. 
I meant to get off the truck and speak with a few of the folks here but froze, feeling a combination of revulsion, embarrassment and compassion that human beings had to make a living this way. Stew couldn’t get away fast enough. 
Birds presiding over a mountain of trash. 
As far as I could make out, the trash pickers look for any recyclable items, sort them in huge canvas bags and bring them to a staging area below, probably to sell them to a commercial recycler. 
The attendant at the gate of this privately run operation told me that most of the pickers lived at a nearby town of Palo Colorado, and not at the dump. 
Up until about a year ago, we recycled practically everything at the ranch, from aluminum, plastics and glass to newspapers and cardboard, all neatly sorted and bundled, so our former gardener Félix periodically could take the load and sell it at a nearby recycling center. 
But after several trips, Félix said that the sale price was so ridiculously meager that the effort wasn’t worth it. A full pickup of various items would fetch only $100 pesos or $5 dollars. So now we recycle only plastic and aluminum and just give it to the recycling center. 
I have no way to calculate how much the pickers at the landfill make. Judging from what we used to get, I would guess it would be somewhere around $300 pesos, or about- $15 dollars a day. Not much, in my opinion, for the risk and miserable working conditions required. 
Two young guys with their bundles of recyclables.
But from a purely rational point of view, I must assume that garbage pickers have figured it’s all worth it compared to other menial jobs available in town, such as picking vegetables at nearby farms. This may be the best they can do. 
Or that the municipality, which has no recycling program, has decided to let people manually pick through the trash instead. 
On the way out, our pickup was weighed again, and supposedly we had left 50 kilos of trash behind, for a fee of $70 pesos. 
My curiosity prompting me again, on the way home we looked for “Palo Colorado” on Google Maps and followed the directions to a nearby town. It seemed no more impoverished than some of the towns near us, and then the road became narrower before it finally turned into what a seemed like a dead-end dirt path. We never found Palo Colorado. 
We returned home and tried to have dinner at Cien Fuegos, one of the many restaurants along the Golden Corridor, but I had no appetite for anything more than half a piece of lukewarm lasagna and a piece of a chocolate dessert. 
Additional images:

Check-in: Five stray dogs at the
 landfill growl at a picker coming in to work.

Permanent canine residents

Hauling away part of the day’s loot. 

Area downhill where recyclables are collected.

Entrance to the landfill.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s