Millions of people worldwide make a living collecting, sorting, recycling and selling valuable materials that someone else has thrown away. In many countries, informal waste pickers supply the only form of solid waste collection. This not only creates cleaner, healthier urban areas for residents, businesses and visitors, but also means that waste pickers consistently make a significant economic contribution by saving municipalities money in their management of solid waste.
According to the 2010 UN-HABITAT publication Solid Waste Management in the World's Cities, waste pickers perform between 50 and 100 per cent of waste collection in most cities in developing countries — at no cost to the city budget. This publication also reveals that informal waste pickers' efforts have made recycling rates in some developing countries competitive with those of developed modern urban systems. For this and other reasons, waste pickers have been called green economy workers.
Waste pickers consistently make a significant economic contribution by saving municipalities money in their management of solid waste.
Despite their significant contributions, waste pickers often face deplorable living and working conditions and have 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.
In many places, waste pickers' livelihoods are being threatened by privatisation and approaches to solid waste disposal 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 does, according to the Tellus Institute.
Thinking holistically about waste management
Dealing with waste was once considered a solely technical issue. This changed in the mid-1990s with the concept of integrated and sustainable waste management, which emerged out of the Collaborative Working Group on Solid Waste Management in Low and Middle-Income Countries (CWG), an informal network of organisations and specialists. CWG affiliates helped reframe waste management as a multidimensional system that includes social, institutional, political, financial, economic and environmental decisions. A key element in this expanded vision has been the inclusio of all stakeholders: governments and the private sector, formal and informal workers, and wider citizens.
There is a growing consensus among practitioners, researchers and activists that informal waste picking provides jobs, environmental benefits and basic solid waste management services in most cities of the developing world. It's time now for city officers and planners to fully embrace this inclusive concept and to acknowledge that, especially in low and middle-income countries, it does not make sense to adopt technologies that have high economic and environmental costs while taking income from large numbers of working poor people.
Waste pickers advancing their own cause
Waste pickers are not just waiting for official recognition, however; increasingly they are becoming the protagonists in the struggle for change. They are getting organised into cooperatives, associations, companies, unions and micro-enterprises, gaining both tangible and intangible benefits. 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. It also helps create institutional frameworks that allow for hiring waste pickers as service providers.
Belo Horizonte and Pune offer two strong examples of how waste picker activism has contributed to the design of progressive urban policies in the developing world. As I have detailed in many WIEGO policy briefs, Belo Horizonte's catadores have engaged in widespread organisation and mobilisation, beginning with the formation of the first waste picker's association, ASMARE, in 1990; many others have since emerged. By raising their collective voices and forming strategic alliances, the waste pickers successfully negotiated for their inclusion in municipal waste programmes. By the mid-1990s, the city's policy framework established recycling, social inclusion, job creation and income generation as four main pillars of solid waste management.
More than a decade ago, Brazil became the only country to include waste picking in its classification of occupations for official statistical purposes--a fact that lends validity to the work.
Today, municipal supports such as equipment, facilities and licensing are provided to waste pickers and their organisations. A large proportion of waste pickers now earn more than the minimum wage (although a gender discrepancy persists, especially at the higher income end). Nationally, gains have also been made. More than a decade ago, Brazil became the only country to include waste picking in its classification of occupations for official statistical purposes — a fact that lends validity to the work. In 2010 Brazil's National Solid Waste Policy, which ensures the rights of informal recyclers, came into force.
In Pune, the 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 fertiliser for public grounds).
These efforts mean 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, decentralised system in one ward led ot its expansion into 15 more wards this year.
Succeeding in an integrated approach
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 is a key factor. WIEGO and the waste picker organisations we work with promote an alternative model that focuses on waste minimisation, reuse and reduce strategies (also known as zero waste strategies), and on environmentally friendly final disposal technologies.
There is no one-style-suits-all solution to integrated solid waste management. Where global technologies are applied, they must be tailored to be affordable and appropriate within the local context. But 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, programmes and projects.
The motto nothing for us without us entices planners, policymakers and city officials — as well as development agencies — to respect informal workers and their membership-based organisations when designing any intervention aimed at waste pickers. And waste picker organisations are making demands — especially to be represented in municipal solid waste management plans, from initial discussions through to implementation.
What waste pickers and their allies want is a people-centred approach to solid waste. Shaping sustainable cities means enhancing social and economic well-being for all, including those workers who have traditionally been among the poorest and most disregarded.