Millions of people worldwide make a living collecting, sorting, recycling, and selling valuable materials that someone else has thrown away. Collecting and selling recyclables, in many instances, is one of the few livelihood opportunities open to newcomers (both domestic and foreign) to cities. In many countries, informal waste pickers supply the only form of solid waste collection. This work creates cleaner, healthier urban areas for residents, businesses, and visitors.
In addition, waste pickers consistently make a significant economic contribution by saving municipalities money in their management of solid waste. According to the UN Habitat’s Solid Waste Management in the World’s Cities 2010, waste pickers perform between 50-100 percent of ongoing waste collection in most cities in developing countries – at no cost to the municipal budget.
Despite their significant contributions, waste pickers often face deplorable living and working conditions and suffer both extreme poverty and very low social status. They are the lowest paid in the recycling chain, face intimidation and exploitation by middlemen, and rather than receiving support from local authorities, are often harassed.
Waste pickers from cities on every continent report that privatization of waste management is the most serious threat to their livelihoods. Also of serious concern are solid waste disposal methods that rely on capital-intensive technologies, such as incineration. This is particularly troubling given that recycling reduces greenhouse gas emissions by 25 times more than incineration, according to a 2008 Tellus Institute (USA) report. Especially in low and middle income countries, adopting these technologies has both a high environmental cost and denies livelihood to large numbers of working poor people.
Some cities, however, are bucking these trends, and, instead, embracing an inclusive approach that involves informal workers in formal systems. Belo Horizonte, Brazil, and Pune, India, offer two such examples.
As detailed in many policy briefs by Women in Informal Employment Globalizing and Organizing (WIEGO), Belo Horizonte’s catadores have engaged in widespread organization and mobilization, beginning with the formation of the first waste pickers’ association, ASMARE, in 1990, followed by many others. By raising their collective voices and forming strategic alliances, the waste pickers successfully negotiated for their inclusion in municipal waste programs. By the mid-1990s, the city’s policy framework established recycling, social inclusion, job creation, and income generation as the four main pillars of solid waste management.
Today, municipal support for equipment, facilities, and licensing are provided to waste pickers and their organizations. A large proportion of waste pickers now earn more than the minimum wage (although it should be noted that a gender discrepancy exists, especially at the higher income end, where men significantly out-earn women). Gains have also been made nationally. More than a decade ago, Brazil became the only country to include waste picking in its classification of occupations for official statistical purposes – lending validity to the work. In 2010, Brazil’s National Solid Waste Policy, which ensures the rights of informal recyclers, came into force.
In Pune, a waste pickers’ union, KKPKP, formed an affiliated cooperative, SwaCH. Through a contractual agreement with the Pune Municipal Corporation, signed in 2008, more than 2,100 SWaCH members provide door-to-door waste collection to over 360,000 city households. The workers are paid through user fees and are accountable to the residents as well as the municipality. Waste is segregated into recyclables and compostables (SWaCH has developed a significant operation to turn wet waste into natural fertilizer for public grounds). These efforts mean that much less material makes its way to the city’s landfill. While the municipality covers administrative costs for SWaCH, purchases equipment (carts, gloves, etc.), and supports health insurance, its costs are far lower than if it had to pay for private collection and disposal. The success of this integrated, decentralized system in one ward led to its expansion into 15 more wards in 2012.
A crucial component of the success of integration in Belo Horizonte and Pune is the organization of waste pickers into cooperatives, associations, companies, unions, and micro-enterprises. While the battlegrounds and the gains differ widely even within countries, in general, collective action improves social status and self-esteem, along with incomes and working conditions. And waste picker organizations are able to make demands – especially for representation in municipal solid waste management plans, from initial discussions throughout implementation. Other proven benefits to waste pickers are improvement in their quality of life; better working conditions and, thus, improvements in health; developing networks; providing institutional frameworks for hiring of waste pickers as service providers to local bodies and/or firms, thus, circumventing intermediaries and improving their gains; and preventing harassment and violence.
Thus, to garner the greatest benefits for a city and all its residents, waste management must be a municipal priority, and inclusion of existing informal waste workers a key factor. WIEGO and the waste picker organizations with which it works promote an alternative model that focuses on waste minimization, reuse and reduce strategies, and environmentally-friendly final disposal technologies.
There is no one-style-suits-all solution to integrated solid waste management. WIEGO’s research and community liaison activities have revealed that solutions must be tailored to the local context. However, across the board, what has proven essential is the involvement of waste picker groups at the planning table, and the broadest grassroots participation in formulating waste policies, programs, and projects.
Contributed by Sonia Dias, Waste Sector Specialist, Women in Informal Employment Globalizing and Organizing (WIEGO). Dr. Sonia Dias is a “garbologist” based in Belo Horizonte, Brazil, who specializes in solid waste management. Information and research on this topic are available in WIEGO’s Publication Series.