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Student Focuses Lens on Illegal Dumping

  • Faiza Elmasry

Olivier Giron discovers, documents illicit trash dumps

Olivier Giron is not like many photographers, who focus their lenses on beautiful landscapes, adorable animals or interesting people. Instead, the 28 year old looks for piles of garbage.


Discovering and documenting illegal dumpsites is part of Giron's academic study, while cleaning them up is his passion.

On a recent sunny morning, about two dozen people were hard at work in a remote wooded section of a quiet residential neighborhood near Washington. Giron, an environmental activist, had them drag old tires, torn cardboard boxes, paper and plastic trash from the illegal dumpsite into a huge pile.

His volunteers range from teenagers to senior citizens.

"It's very inspiring to be involved in the environmental community because there is so much you can do," says Maureen Jaouen, an intern with a local environmental group.

And there is so much to find, says Philip Latasa, founder of Friends of Accotink Creek.

"Last one we cleaned up, we found a traffic stop light there, found a couple of toilets in the past couple of weeks," he says. "Construction materials are not unusual. We have one site where we found a number of computers dumped. Those do contain some toxic materials and should not be put out in the environment."

Latasa hopes the cleanup efforts send a message to people that illegal dumping is unacceptable. Volunteers clean up an illegal dumpsite near Washington, D.C..

Volunteers clean up an illegal dumpsite near Washington, D.C..

"We also hope to educate some of the land owners of private property who can prevent some of the illegal dumping at least by putting a fence, putting in hedges to prevent people from having access from their property to the woods, putting signs that say 'No Dumping,' putting in video surveillance."

Giron's interest in cleaning local dumpsites began during a visit to the ancient Incan ruins at Machu Picchu in Peru.

"I was able to see this wonderful thing that humanity was capable of on top of this mountain, but at the same time I found a location in the middle of the jungle, very close to Machu Picchu where there were hundreds of red bags coming from the municipal dumpsite."

Giron noted the same sort of pollution when he returned home and he decided to document those illegal dumpsites as part of his thesis for a Master's degree in photography.

"I'd go to these places, photograph them if they had not been cleaned up," Giron says. "I'd say I probably have photographed 60 dumpsites; 50 in Virginia and the rest are in the District."

He also left his mark on the sites.

"I've been building sculptures with the waste that I find and I'm leaving on the site for the people that are disposing their waste. It's a dialogue that I guess I'm beginning to start with them."

There is a global dialogue - and cleanup - going on, through an effort called World Cleanup 2012. Giron says the movement began in 2008 in eastern Europe.

"They did this massive national cleanup in their country of Estonia where they had 50,000 volunteers in five hours cleaned the entire country. They were able to get the president, politicians, actors, the whole entire nation to get involved in this. Since then it expanded to 85 countries. They are having their campaign currently called World Cleanup 2012. In the U.S., there is a team in San Francisco, and there is a team that's been started in New York and I started the one in Virginia."

Giron expects to earn his Master's degree in a few months, but his efforts to raise awareness about illegal dumpsites will continue, as will his campaign to clean them up.

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