In Guatemala City, out of sight of and ignored by the rest of the world, Guajeros have for generations made their living on the scraps, crumbs and garbage of others. The 2006 documentary, Recycled Life, depicts in detail a lifestyle that is a combination of crushing poverty and industriousness centered in a 40-acre trash dump in Central America. While depressing and at times painful to watch, this film teaches viewers a great deal about humanitarianism and resourcefulness in our modern age of consumption and waste. Odds are you’ve never heard of a Guajero. For the vast majority of us, the lifestyle of a Guajero is unthinkable. For a Guajero, those of us with an Internet connection might as well be on a different planet. “Guajero,” a term coined nearly 60 years ago in Guatemala City, refers to the legions of workers that handpick through the grime and grit of the city’s garbage dump in order to feed themselves and their families. A profession created from pure industriousness, being a Guajero is not a government- or nonprofit-sponsored job — it’s simply a lifestyle the poorest of the poor have created from nothing more than finding something others might buy. Day in and day out, workers sift and salvage in this toxic wasteland for bits of food and shreds of material to be resold, repurposed or recycled. Carlos, a 10-year-old boy, informs the camera, “My mom doesn’t love me, so I stay here to sleep,” as the sights and sounds of heavy machinery mulching uncountable tons of filth rumbles in the background. Carlos, like a huge portion of the 2,000-plus families that make up the Guajero populous, grew up knowing nothing but the trade of being a Guajero; picking through mounds of garbage in an attempt to find anything salvageable that can pay for, or be, the next meal. He continues, “I haven’t eaten today because the truck that brings chicken hasn’t arrived yet.” During the day, Guajeros are inundated by toxic methane gas bubbling through the ground as dozens of vultures circle overhead. At night, they sleep under cardboard blankets and, if they’re lucky, underneath a makeshift roof of their tattered shelters. In spite of what many of us would consider shear misery, they labor each day en masse to recover and remove thousands of pounds of resalable or recyclable items daily from Guatemala City’s waste stream. Where exactly the recyclables end up isn’t entirely clear, but without fail they divert waste from the city dump daily intended for reuse in one form or another. The irony is disgustingly apparent. Guajeros have little more to look forward to than a life that will ultimately end in death by lung disease, cancer or getting caught under the tires of heavy machinery while substantially helping to clean their environment. Of course, the ecological implications aren’t the reason they choose a lifestyle rummaging through filth. For nearly all Guajeros, it’s the only life they know and can afford. According to the film, Guajeros earn roughly $6 U.S. a day.
Recycled Life is a heartbreaking film depicting the gruesome shadows created by our consumption-based lifestyle. Bringing to light the brutal hardships of Guajeros can hopefully, one day, inspire more of us to consider our society’s approach to consumer goods — and the lives of those affected by such waste worldwide.