Making a Living as a Trash Picker The Landfill in Guatemala City

ALBANY: Mindy Whisenhunt and her daughter Alex spoke at the October Save the Pine Bush vegetarian lasagna dinner at the First Presbyterian Church.

They have made two trips to the landfill outside of Guatemala City to volunteer with and organization called Camino Seguro or Safe Passage that helps the children of people who eke out an existence picking recyclables from the Guatemala City landfill.

Volunteers such as Mindy and Alex go to Safe Passage for a week at a time. While there, they meet the children, play with them, and help with Safe Passage Program.

Trucks bring garbage to the dump from Guatemala City and the surrounding areas. All kinds of wastes are brought, including household waste, medical wastes and toxic chemicals. The people who work in the dump pick out the recyclables and sell them. This is a common practice in developing nations. The earn about $3 a day doing this, if they are lucky. When Mindy and Alex arrived, there were terrible rainstorms. Trucks were backed up in line, and they could not dump their loads do the rain. Without dumping, the people could not pick out the recyclables and make any money.

The people in the dump have to fight the vultures for the garbage. Now, children under 14 are banned from picking garbage. However, some of the children in Safe Passgae still have scars from the vultures, when they worked the dump before the ban.

The dump is where the parents of the children work. It smells of methane and tons of garbage. The dump is a dangerous place. It was very hot and incredibly smelly. Because of the toxic nature of the landfill, the children were often sick with skin infections, respiratory diseases and dysentery. The cancer rate is very high and the residents here don’t live past 50.

Children are given bags of food once a month based on their attendance. The food is supposed to make up for the income the child would make if he or she worked in the landfill.

Mindy showed a slide of the dump and pointed out a where a sink hole opened up and swallowed many trucks. No one knows how many people died.

Alex showed slides of the homes that people had made from the trash they picked in the dump. The roofs are often just tarps. The rain can be torrential at times, and people really suffer.

The program, Safe Passage, was founded by Hanley Denning. She sold her car and her computer and left Maine with $5000 for Guatemala City. Unfortunately, Hanley died in a car crash in January, 2007. She was only 36.

Alex observed significant changes in the children from her first trip to her second trip. For example, on the last trip, the children enjoyed music class and danced to the music. In contrast, on the first trip that the children did not move.

The food served in the cafeteria may be the only meal the children eat all day. Workers at Safe Passage put an emphasis on serving nutritious meals.

Safe Passage has a clinic, a dentist and social workers. Emphasis is put on education to escape the relentless poverty.

While Alex was at Safe Passage, Alex and the children went on a field trip to a children’s museum in Guatemala City. The children had never been to such a place before. Alex noted that at lunch, the children would just take a bit of the food, and then wrap it up, and put in their pockets to take it home to their families.

For more information about Safe Passage, please go to Also, for more information on the people who live at the Guatemala City dump, see the documentary Recycled Life,

Published in the Nov/Dec 2008 Newletter