Let’s make the informal sector less “trash-y”

City Walk, Delhi by Shishir Basant — “Barely a 100 meter from Delhi’s largest shopping mall, the trash from the mall is piled, in and much around the dumpster — its an informal waste segregation point for the 6 trash diggers/waste pickers working there.”

“Uncollected waste kills!” explains Future of Waste head Antoine in an informative article on waste pickers and waste segregation, referring specifically to improperly-tossed waste that generates disease and other dangers for people living nearby. Unsorted waste also poses a threat to human life, greatly contributing the greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. In metro Manila, however, this sentence takes another level of meaning in a city where a landslide in the year 2000 at the Payatas (“Promise Land”) dumpsite killed approximately 200 people.

This problem is of course not limited to the Philippines — when I was living in New Delhi, I’d often have to side-step giant mountains of garbage on the sidewalk and I frequently saw people sorting through the trash, unregistered and without social protection. In both these cities and across the developing world, informal waste pickers are largely responsible for sorting and reselling recyclables thrown away, playing a huge role in the city’s solid waste management (SWM). Being in the informal economy however, these “jobs” come with major hardships as well, as well explained in this video:

So, the eternal question…what can we do?

In Payatas, the landslide occurred partially due to a typhoon, but also due to the disorganization of this dumpsite, which collapsed instantly in the storm. Families living at the dumpsite largely were part of the informal sector of waste pickers, scavenging through trash to find recyclables to resell. Ten years after this tragedy, significant effort has gone into the site both structurally and on a human scale, helping get waste pickers into associations to negotiate good prices for their recyclables.

But we don’t want to wait for the next tragedy to occur to see improved conditions for waste pickers. As you saw in the video, some interesting social enterprises are taking action across Asia to make waste picking both an economical and environmental opportunity:

Plastics for Change, a social enterprise that is currently in pilot phase in Coimbatore, India, is aiming to create a fair trade market for plastics collected by waste pickers.

→ Similarly, Waste Ventures India is working to create waste picker cooperatives as well as incubate businesses created around the sector, including training on topics such as compost and segregation.

And if you’ve been following MakeSense’s posts, you might have guessed by now that we’re taking action too! Future of Waste, MakeSense’s waste-focused tribe, will be focusing the next several months more specifically on this subject of waste segregation and waste pickers. Through MakeSense, you can take action to support social enterprises that take action on this important topic, get support in launching your own social enterprise on this topic, or on your existing enterprise. You can organize events that bring together actions and create dialogue on a greener, more inclusive future. Check it out:

Interested in learning more? Contact me at rachel@makesense.org and see let’s figure out together how to make the business of waste picking and segregation a little less dirty :)

Join us at Future of Waste, a MakeSense program focusing on waste with the active support of SUEZ at www.makesense.org/futureofwaste.

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Through your engagement, we can all make a difference together.


Rachel is helping the MakeSense community to grow in South East Asia.
She is working with the different Hotspots to get citizens involved in solving social startups’ challenges.

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