Trash is a fictional story based on author Andy Mulligan’s experiences as a volunteer aid worker on a landfill in the Philippines. The book is packed with visceral descriptions of children living in abject poverty, exposing actual conditions faced by the world’s poorest children as well as the injustice of a world that largely ignores them. The story’s central protagonists, Raphael, Gardo, and Rat, are young “trash boys” who eke out a living by sifting through mountains of putrid trash in a landfill named Behala where they live. Affluent people in the surrounding city live comfortable lives while impoverished children are largely ignored, imprisoned, or killed. Mulligan thus demonstrates how the children who live among trash are treated like “trash” by others, suggesting that their suffering is caused by society’s unjust treatment, namely the deliberate ignorance of impoverished children or outright discrimination and violence against them.
Mulligan’s descriptions of life in poverty emphasize the inhumane levels of squalor that many young children in Behala are forced to endure. Many children are forced to live in rotting waste, which they find repulsive, traumatizing, and dangerous. Though the children have never known anything else, they never get used to the “stink” of trash—mostly comprised of human feces (or “stupp”)—that they have to wade through day after day. Raphael tries “not to breathe too deep because of the stink” and he is acutely aware of how badly he smells, often commenting that he’s “stinking” when he’s around other people. The “lucky” children (like Raphael) live in shacks built above mountains of trash, while others (like Rat) have to live in rat-infested “damp and dark” holes of trash that Raphael finds “disgusting.” Gardo fears rats because he “got bitten once and his whole hand went bad.” Raphael is also traumatized by an accident at his old home, Smoky Mountain, in which the trash caved in and buried almost a hundred “poor souls” alive, who are “rotting with the trash.” He fears being condemned to the same fate, often commenting on how “dangerous” it is when trash slides around, and how easily he could disappear into the trash himself. All of this together conveys just how miserable life is for Behala’s children—they have no choice but to live miserably among society’s waste and they constantly fear injury or death.
For Mulligan, the real tragedy is that children are forced to live in such appalling conditions because others in society turn a blind eye to them, leaving them vulnerable to further abuse and severely limiting their prospects. Mulligan emphasizes that the children who are “doomed” to “breathe the stink all day, all night” have little hope of integrating into society and escaping life on the landfill because they are shunned when they venture beyond Behala’s boundaries. Raphael feels he “might as well have been invisible” in public spaces like Central Station and the graveyard. Rat also explains that he’s typically refused passage on buses because he’s so filthy that he’s chased away like a “curse,” meaning that most people only think about their own revulsion at the boys’ smell and filth, rather than show any desire to help them out of their plight. Since the children are largely ignored by society, they are forced to work from a young age, foregoing childhood and education to relentlessly scavenge trash that can be sold for food. Raphael explains that he started “working” on the landfill when he was three, and the kids “never stop,” all they do is “crawl and crawl, and sort and sort.” Father Juilliard (who manages the charity-run Mission School in Behala) feels that his task is hopeless: most of the children cannot come to school because they need to scavenge to survive. He often wonders what good an education is to children who will never make it off the landfill. Olivia (a volunteer at the Mission School) similarly reflects on how hopeless the children’s prospects are when she sees young children and old men living on the landfill side by side and thinks, “if you have any imagination you can see the child and what he is doomed to do for the rest of his life.” Clearly, people outside of Behala are either unwilling or ill-equipped to help the children—either way, their passivity plays a significant role in “doom[ing]” the kids to the difficult lives they lead.
The children also fear becoming more visible in society because they are vulnerable targets for a corrupt police force that subjects children to unjust imprisonment and violent brutality. Raphael feels like he is “breaking the law” just for walking through Central Station and he is terrified of the guards because “the prisons take kids quicker than they take men.” Mulligan exposes the fates of imprisoned children through Olivia’s eyes: she is traumatized by the sight of children stacked alongside adults in stifling “cages” like animals, stinking like “sweat and urine” for no crime beyond being “poor.” Homeless runaways are also tortured and killed by the police, implying that attempts by children to escape their squalid environments might result in them being murdered or maimed and left to fend for themselves, ending up even worse off than before. Raphael says, “if a new kid shows up with nowhere to go, and the police get him—they wait ‘til night, break his legs and put him on the tracks.” The police similarly threaten Raphael with the same fate when interrogating him, saying they will break his bones and throw him in the trash, like the “garbage” that he is.
Mulligan’s fictional story thus offers a harsh social commentary on the real injustices of societies in which the upper classes condemn impoverished children to lives no better than the lives of “rats.” Like rats, disadvantaged children are ignored, avoided, and violently punished or even murdered when they attempt to become more visible in society, leaving them with no options but to live and die amid trash.
Childhood, Poverty, and Injustice ThemeTracker
Childhood, Poverty, and Injustice Quotes in Trash
No, never—because what we mainly find is stupp.
Gardo’s my partner, and we always work together. He looks after me.
We get the fast food too, and that’s a little business in itself. It doesn’t come out near me and Gardo, it goes down the far end, and about a hundred kids sort out the straws, the cups, and the chicken bones. Everything turned, cleaned and bagged up – cycled down to the weighers, weighed and sold.
Trash is often wet, and the juices are always running. Maybe the ground here was a bit lower, I don’t know—but it was always muddy […] I got down low with the candle, trying not to breathe too deep because of the stink […] It might seem crazy asking a kid if you can come into his hole, but this hole was about the only thing Rat had, apart from what he wore. I would not have lived there – anywhere would have been better.
When Smoky Mountain went down, there were nearly a hundred killed, and everyone knows some of those poor souls are still down there, down with the trash, turned into trash, rotting with the trash.
On the other hand, I did not want Raphael hiding and drawing attention that way, so that’s why I kept him right in the middle of it.
I was told once about runaways, and it made me sick. How if a new kid shows up with nowhere to go, and the police get him—they wait till night, break his legs and put him on the tracks.
Behala also makes you want to weep, because it looks like an awful punishment that will never end – and if you have any imagination, you can see the child and what he is doomed to do for the rest of his life. When you see the old man, too weak to work, propped in a chair outside his shack, you think, That is Raphael in forty years. What could possibly change? These children are doomed to breathe the stink all day, all night, sifting the effluent of the city. Rats and children, children and rats, and you sometimes think they have pretty much the same life.
I had so much evidence. Unfortunately for me, I was naïve. My office was raided. The same night there was a terrible fire at my house. I was away but both my maid and my driver were killed in it. And every scrap of evidence went up in smoke.
We were amongst wealthy people in very fancy clothes, and we felt even greyer and dirtier, but there was nothing for it, and still nobody was worrying about us – no one seemed to see us, like we were ghosts.
And that is when we saw the brightest light.