I am still shocked, even after living in Madrid for six years, at how many people live off what the rest of us throw out. I live in the north of the city — the supposedly rich part — and every morning the neighbourhood resembles a lush, flowery meadow abuzz with bees, except the flowers are refuse containers, recycling stations and skips, and the bees are human beings, my fellow Madrileños.
The people who live off our rubbish are easy to spot: they all wheel shopping trolleys. Many, but not all, are Roma. There seems to be a division of labour among these latter-day rag and bone men, with individuals specialising in certain categories of rubbish. You see people who only take metal. They collect copper or gunmetal pipes from the skips outside buildings undergoing renovation, or they pick up the old TVs or kitchen appliances that people leave (illegally) by the paper and glass recycling bins. There are those who are only interested in paper. They fish in the paper recycling bins, sometimes using ingenious, jerry-rigged devices that resemble stout selfie sticks. These people are nothing if not resourceful. I suppose they need to be.
I often wonder what a full trolley of paper or old toasters and coffee makers and whatnot might be worth. I also wonder where they wheel their booty to and whether the fishers of paper and pickers of pipes are at the bottom of a food chain of outlaw recycling. My prejudices lead me to speculate on whether the Roma have the city divided up into territories under the control of clans and families, and whether some engorged patriarch sits at the top of the pyramid, creaming off a percentage of each trolley’s haul.
Anyone wheeling a shopping trolley and rummaging through rubbish has my sympathy, but I feel most sorry for those who have the need to root through our domestic waste. In Madrid, we separate our domestic waste into two categories: recyclable, which goes into yellow bins; and non-recyclable, mostly food waste, which goes into green bins. These bins go out onto the kerbside corral before eight to await the passing of the garbage truck. Depending on where along the truck’s route a corral lies, there might be anything between a couple of minutes’ to a couple of hours’ window during which the bins remain unemptied. I imagine the poor souls who have to go through this rubbish are as familiar with the binman’s schedule as one of the workers who rushes by them knows the 137 bus’s timetable.
A few years ago it was rare to see anyone going through the green or yellow bins. Back then you’d only see the odd soul tearing open a bag from the yellow bin and retrieving a metal thingamabob or an old pot. Now they’re at the green bins, and, I suspect, in search of food. My heart bleeds when I see this and I think that you really can’t fall any lower than looking through people’s leftovers for something to eat.
As we pass someone reaching down into a green bin and rustling through the bags, I can see the puzzlement and fear on my girls’ faces. They often ask me why there is someone looking through the bins. I take a moment to reflect and give my answer: it’s someone not as fortunate as ourselves, someone without a job and possibly without a home, someone with no money. Other questions usually follow.
“What would happen if you or mamá lost your jobs?”
“We’d be OK for a long time,” I answer. “We have savings. There’d be social welfare.”
“And after that?”
“Well, if we were really stuck we could go and ask your grandparents for money. Or go and live with them. But that won’t happen.”
I think harder. “Because things like that don’t happen to the likes of me and your mother. These people you see rooting through the bins have fallen through the cracks.”
And on our ten-minute walk to school I try to explain the concepts of social exclusion, addiction, homelessness, mental illness and plain old hard luck. There’s usually a question along the lines of “Why can’t everyone give a little bit of money to the government and then they build houses and give food to these people and then they can find a job and then they’ll be OK?”
I’m usually out of answers by the time the bell rings at nine.
About five years ago the town hall in Madrid made what these people do illegal. Couched amidst all the legalese of the La Ordenanza de Protección del Medio Ambiente Urbano (Environmental Protection Law) is a prohibition against removing items from municipal waste containers (only agents of the town hall are authorized to do so). There is a €750 fine for taking as much as a bottle top from a bins. I have never heard of a single person being prosecuted for this, and on my travels through the city have never seen a policeman or woman pull someone up for breaking the Ordenanza. One would hope that the police have better things to do.