The Rich, The Poor and the Trash

Summary of a documentary on global inequalities and waste

This excellent 2018 documentary gives us a rare insight into the daily working lives of two men living in poverty, both making a living through trash, one in Kenya and the other in the United States.

It’s a really useful resource for gaining an insight into what the lived experience of poverty is like in these two very different countries, and for highlighting the extent of global inequalities.

Most of the documentary focuses on two men, and we get to hear a lot from them: details of their lives and their thoughts on poverty and inequality and what they would do to help overcome the problems of inequality.

We also here from a few experts and other people, but these take on a supporting role to the two main proponents (which is unusual for documentaries like this, but also welcome!

This is an excellent video to use to teach Global Development in A-level sociology, personally I would use it in the introductory lesson to the module.

Below i provide a brief summary of some of the key points of this documentary:

Sorting trash in Kenyan slum

After a brief introduction we get to see the first part the day of one guy in Kenya who works in waste management.

He gets up at 4.00 a.m and then spends several hours sorting through trash which is delivered from the nearby affluent suburbs and shopping areas. He sorts out food for his pigs and separates out any useful items which he can sell on.

There are a lot of people working sorting waste, many of them there because they have no other option. Many of them also eat waste food they find there.

Recycling cans in New York

The video now hops over to America where it follows another guy who also gets up at 4.00 a.m. to collect cans and bottles, which he then sorts to sell – there’s a good market in recycled containers it seams in New York – he can make $75 a day doing this.

We also get an insight into his life history – he used to be homeless, and he reminds us that many Americans are just one pay check away from falling into a similar situation.

Back in the slum

In this third section we see the guy in Kenya sorting out some of the cartons he’s found at the dump – he gets someone else to wash them and then he sells them on, making a daily income of $3-4 which is enough for him to feed his family, and lifts him above Kenya’s formal poverty line.

The U.S ‘Cultural Waste and Recycling Centres’

Back in the United States – we’re taken to a recycling centre, a community initiative that gives ‘canners’ support in their recycling endeavours – which plays a crucial part in helping them stay resilient.

The video also gets a bit more analytical at this point – there are 600 billionaires in the United States, but 40 million Americans live in poverty. But poverty is much worse in Kenya – it takes the average Kenyan 20 years to earn the annual salary of the average American.

There’s also a short interview with an anthropologist who reminds us that waste is cultural – a lot of things are only trash because we label them as such – and we take a trip to one guy’s museum of trash to drive the point home – he’s got thousands of dollars worth of perfectly good stuff he’s collected from what other people have thrown away!

Reflecting on Inequality

The documentary now highlights inequalities in the two countries – by taking a trip to the mall in Kenya – one gets the impression that the government there is investing more in malls for the wealth than in education and health for the poor.

In America we visit a guy who makes art from trash – one piece (which sold for a small fortune) adorns the wall of the one the most expensive apartments in New York – how’s that for irony.

Final section

in this section the two main men in the video give their views on inequality – both seem quite wise – neither think inequality is a good thing and would use our financial resources to give more enabling support to those in poverty, a leg up if you like to better help them help themselves.

Discussion Questions

Why do you think the video focuses on trash as a means of exploring inequality?

Have these two men found an effective solution (sorting and selling trash) to lift themselves out of poverty?

Do you agree with the two men in this video. Should our global resources be used to help the poor?

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