Out of the many artifacts that were running through my mind, I decided to focus my discussion around the following: a dumpster. Not just any dumpster, but in this case, the Gramacho dump of Rio de Janeiro (and its recent closure). To most of us in America, we see dumpsites as useless, toxic, and invaluable spaces filled with trash. However, to further understand the Rio dumpsites, we have to deterritorialize our preconceived notions of what we consider “dump”.
In our own, privileged perspective, we understand trash as “excessive waste” or materials that serve little to no purpose after a certain period of use. Therefore, we are taught at a young age to throw everything away that we no longer find interest in. Personally, I have my own experiences of wasting things (as does everybody); to further clarify, I remember when my parents always told me to throw away things that I no longer needed. In this case, I would have piles of hardly worn shirts, pants, jackets, socks, etc. that I felt was serving no purpose in my closet but to sit as wasted space. In another instance, I have seen many people throw away their personal belongings because they no longer felt like these items served any more purpose. In fact, one of my close friends almost dumped her brand new laundry detergent she had purchased because she didn’t like the scent. Of course, I found this as an opportunity to intervene and save myself a trip to the convenience store. Likewise, this reflexive experience we share with trash in a developed neighborhood—how I feel like I can throw away my own clothes but feel like my friend’s detergent could serve me a greater purpose—allowed me to understand one’s man trash truly is another man’s luggage. So, we need to deterritorialize the idea of a dumpsite from being conceptualized as a pile of waste, but rather as a collection of items discarded because modernity and development have allowed members in a community to believe that anything that does not serve a purpose more significant than the space it takes up is waste. By doing so, we can understand the Rio de Janeiro dumpsites as collections of discarded materials that may actually serve a purpose beyond our own modernity.
Consequently, we can now challenge the ways in which dumpsites are perceived differently varying on the levels of modern development. Therefore, this brings me to my main contention of selecting this article for discussion; while we may perceive these dumpsites in Rio de Janeiro as places occupied by useless, toxic wastes (at least in the modernized, American perspective), they serve a much greater purpose for dispossessed communities in Brazil as open sources for recycling and profiting from discarded items. Therefore, this artifact has been challenged and viewed across various nation-states and communities. For instance, the western and European nations may not be able to comprehend acts of scavenging and foraging as a means for profit. However, communities facing economic disparity and constant financial stress may not have another option but to utilize these areas as resources. As a result, we face two polar opposites in which the west believe that their modernization has allowed them to waste, while the other community believes that their government has failed them because rummaging through waste is their only viable option. In any case, there is a clear difference in conceptualizing waste in America versus Rio.
If, however, Americans were familiar with such communities facing financial incapability (for instance, a polarization between the rural south and the thriving west coast), then our whole national community may also see a shift in perspectives towards a more resourceful and laborious attitude towards finances. By doing so, we would underline the idea that waste is simply a social construct that forces consumers to use, discard, and purchase more of a product. Consequently, we would become aware that everything still offers some sort of value, and thus become an efficient and wiser nation. However, our capitalistic markets and economic hierarchy have become such important values in the American agenda that companies and producers constantly satisfy and increasing demand (hence, an increasing surplus), leading to an excessive amount of waste that largely goes unnoticed.
Essentially, the dumpsite in Rio de Janeiro is an important artifact in that it highlights the problems of modernity and the underlining issues that stand behind competitive capitalism. While families in Rio de Janeiro rely on these dumpsites to find valuable and recyclables to sell, many Americans (as well as other nations) have the option to enjoy a nice, twenty-piece chicken dinner at a local KFC. Although this is not to say that there is anything actually wrong with enjoying a fulfilling meal, yet there is a subculture between dispossessed communities and their polar neighbors that is rarely confronted. Instead, we repeat the cycle of indulging, wasting, and starting over as a symbol of our historical success and endeavors in national economies.
Take a look at this interesting article I found on the Gramacho dump in my own research:
The article starts off by introducing the dumpsite as a problematic sign of economic distress in Rio that goes largely unspoken. Additionally, it discusses the ways in which Brazilians citizens forcibly scavenge as a result of their neglectful capitalist system. In fact, the government decided to close down the Gramacho dumpsite with the intention that the scavengers would inevitably find some other means of survival. By doing so, however, families are left alone and feeling hopeless as they constantly scavenge the nearby dumps with little luck. This article also highlights the lives of a few locals themselves; Sebastiana Pimenta claims, “I saw garbage trucks tipping over onto people”; José Carlos da Silva explains, “We found books by Machiavelli and Marx that made us sharper”. The article is a very interesting read in that it attempts to describe the scavengers through an ethnographic approach. By doing so, the struggles that these local communities face seem even more real.
Ultimately, the Gramacho dumpsite is a sign of excessive waste, capitalistic surplus and junk, and the social and environmental threats that come with modernity. By simply examining and exploring this topic, I became much more mindful of the things I waste. Today, I took a small step and recycled all of my plastic cups; how will you take yours?