Slim pickings: Creating a better working environment for the world’s waste pickers

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The world is facing an unprecedented solid waste management crisis. Of the 2.01 billion metric tonnes of municipal solid waste (MSW) that is generated annually worldwide, a meagre 13.5% is recycled and 5.5% is composted. According to a report by the World Bank, if current conditions persist, global waste production is expected to increase by 70% by 2050, with the majority of increased waste being produced in low- and middle-income countries in line with economic growth.

Waste collection is a critical step in managing refuse, yet many countries lack the infrastructure to deal with the scale of waste produced.

Waste pickers operate in every country in the world — from the richest to the poorest. However, countries that lack formal waste disposal and recycling systems often rely on waste pickers to recover, sort and dispose of or sell waste effectively. Their efforts are critical in supporting the recycling stream, recovering roughly 20% all waste materials in developing countries that would otherwise end up in landfill. They are an absolutely critical group that is often over-looked.

There are now estimated to be more than 16 million people globally who make a living through waste picking. Waste pickers contribute to the economy, enhance public health and safety and encourage environmental sustainability by acting as a key component within the waste management system. Yet despite their value, they often face low social status, deplorable living and working conditions and lack of protection from the government due to their informal status.

Understanding the challenges of waste pickers

As one of the most accessible means of livelihood to individuals with minimal skills, knowledge and capital, waste pickers often hail from the most marginalised communities in society. Generally, this includes women, migrants, and low caste families with little to no formal education. As one of the hardest jobs in society, many locals are forced into waste picking due to lack of other available options. Particularly in societies with strong caste or social classes, certain groups are expected to fulfil the role of waste collector, constituting what Dr Sylvia Karpagam has termed a form of ‘caste-based slavery’.

Until recently, waste collection was not recognised by many governments as a legitimate source of employment. As a result, waste collectors were not provided identity cards acknowledging their rights to education, healthcare and government welfare schemes. Since they are not recognised by many national laws, waste pickers face numerous forms of discrimination by the community and public enforcement officials who see them as vagrants, thieves and scavengers. A study of informal waste collectors in India found that the majority of waste pickers had been taken into police custody at least once in their lives for petty crime.

In addition to facing discrimination, waste picking poses severe health hazards to workers themselves. Recycling practices globally are still underdeveloped and infrequent, with many households not sorting their waste. As a result, waste pickers face many injuries and cuts while sorting through refuse and can work in highly unsanitary conditions — often living on or near an open landfill. While there has been an increase in the availability of protective gear and equipment, some waste pickers still do not have access to protective clothing and equipment that would prevent injuries and sickness.

Moreover, frequent exposure to toxins and bending to collect items mean that waste pickers often experience respiratory symptoms, musculoskeletal disorders and chronic gastro-intestinal problems. In a study of waste picker health and safety in Accra, 90% reported experiencing ergonomic hazards at work, including 82% being exposed to biological hazards and 95% exposed to physical hazards.

The importance of waste picker cooperatives

As environmental challenges related to waste have increased on the global political agenda, there has been a shift in the organisation of waste pickers from informal workers with no rights to increasingly organised groups recognised as providing reliable, high-quality services to society. A key contributor to this shift has been the formation of waste picker cooperatives which are becoming more commonplace in developing countries across the world.

Cooperatives often form at a grassroots level to achieve a social objective. Their organisation provides a number of benefits to members. Firstly, cooperatives enable members to benefit from economies of scale. By collecting higher volumes of waste, waste pickers circumvent the middle man and are empowered to charge a higher price in the market. In Colombia, a sophisticated union of cooperatives has driven up the market price for waste nationally to the extent that per ton payments now almost match those paid to private operators.

Strength in numbers also allows waste pickers to advocate for basic rights. In India, waste cooperatives have been successful in lobbying the government to reform legislation. The National Environmental Policy gives legal recognition to the waste picking profession allowing waste pickers to apply for identification cards and social welfare schemes. In Colombia and India, waste pickers have access to loans, legal aid and business assistance which help them to move up the social ladder and ensure they are not destined to a career in waste collection. Programmes which grant child care or education grants to the children of waste pickers also prevent a caste or class-based system for those born into poverty.

Formal recognition of the waste picker profession has helped to establish a normative terrain for the activity, which in turn has helped to promote better living conditions and rights for workers. In some countries, waste pickers collective power has enabled them to secure customary rights to waste at a municipal level as well as access to funds from the local government for things like education, infrastructure and waste management technology.

Waste pickers must be considered a valuable and important part of society

Some countries are taking steps to promote the social integration of waste pickers and change attitudes towards them. In the Philippines, waste pickers with membership to a cooperative are provided recognisable green uniforms and given the title of ‘eco-aide’, while in Chennai (India), waste pickers are referred to as ‘street beautifiers’. Social recognition protects waste pickers from discriminatory behaviour and ensures they are included in their local community.

But we must go beyond the normalisation of waste pickers and move towards a much stronger recognition for the hugely valuable role that they are playing, In many countries, waste pickers supply the only form of solid waste collection, usually at little to no cost to municipal governments. Without waste pickers a much larger percentage of plastic pollution would be in our waters.

It is a challenging issue that mixes poverty, human rights, gender equality, and environmental pollution — but we as a global community must face into it. We know that waste management and material recycling is an essential component of a circular economy. Given their integral role in society, more needs to be done to ensure that waste pickers are properly treated, incentivised and provided with the rights and resources they require to work effectively and safely.

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A policy thinker, problem-solver and partnership builder. Passionate about building sustainable, equitable and inclusive markets around the world

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