“MAY simbolo kasi sya sa buhay ko.....galing po ako sa scavengers po, nangalakal. Parang may simbolo sya sa buhay ko. Kasi galing sya sa sira na mga gadget po. Sa basura sya galing..... parang may connect sya sa buhay ko.” -- Carlo Paalam, Olympic silver medalist.

Carlo’s words, loosely translated, means that his Olympic silver medal has a connection to his life. It was made from scrap cellphones and gadgets, and he used to be a scavenger in a landfill who sells recyclable scraps for a living.

Like scraps that found a new life in those highly coveted medals, Carlo’s life has turned around too. He doesn’t need to dig into dumpsites anymore. His incentives amounting to P22 million pesos, as of this writing, are sufficient to give him a comfortable life.

But the thousands of scavengers like him are not as lucky. They are still stuck in their unsanitary and dangerous work, digging for anything of value in garbage dumps. Their ‘workplace’ has been shrinking too. The Department of Environment and Natural Resources is relentless in closing down open dumpsites.

Many towns and cities are already disposing their solid waste in secured sanitary landfills, like the one in Kalangitan, Capas, where scavengers are prohibited from entering. Scavengers thus resort to sourcing their “kalakal” from piles of garbage in the streets, in commercial centers and garbage cans.

In Bundagul, Mabalacat City, I often see this old man, probably in his early sixties, who rides a three wheeled bicycle looking for recyclable wastes along the whole stretch of Ninoy Aquino highway. By late afternoon, his bike is full of old cartons boxes, mineral water bottles and all sorts of “kalakal” and sells these to a junkshop in Sta. Ines.

When I was a kid, there were no scavengers on the streets. There were however “bote-dyardyo” traders with kariton who go house-to-house and buy old newspapers by dangkal (one hand span) and bote garapa. There is this old man we call Tops, who exchange old newspapers for ice drop.

What fate awaits scavengers? Not all of them will become like Carlo. Can the government do something about their plight? They are part of the recycling loop. I call them environmental heroes.