The World’s Waste-Pickers Under Threat

New waste management policies undermine the informal recycling sector in the Global South.   
by: Barcelona Research Group on Informal Recyclers

Waste pickers oppose policies that exclude them from their source of livelihood: recyclable waste. (Photo: Global Alliance of Waste Pickers)

Waste pickers oppose policies that exclude them from their source of livelihood: recyclable waste. (Photo: Global Alliance of Waste Pickers)On the occasion of the Global Waste Picker Day (March 1st), the Barcelona Research Group on Informal Recyclers—in collaboration with EnvJustice, the Global Alliance of Waste Pickers and WIEGO—releases a thematic map of socio-environmental conflicts in the Global South related to informal recyclers, whose livelihoods are put at greater risk due to a global policy shift towards waste management privatization that limits their access to recyclables.

This map (below) documents socio-environmental conflicts involving waste pickers in Africa, Asia and Latin America. It is a selection of over 50 conflicts from the Environmental Justice Atlas in which waste pickers, citizens and civil society groups are resisting and fighting for social and environmental justice. The map gives visibility to the growing injustices in the waste management sector resulting from wider public policy trends related to privatization, incineration and access restriction in urban space. The conflicts visualize who loses and who benefits from these policy shifts – showing how profits are privatized and how costs are socialized. Waste, once a commons of the poor, is rapidly being converted into a commodity. The social and environmental impacts of this process are closely intertwined, notably pollution and loss of livelihood.

The world is continuously producing more and more waste, with consequent serious health and environmental impacts. In urban areas, domestic waste is accumulating at an even faster pace and landfills fill up quickly. Public authorities, in a desperate attempt to manage the unmanageable, implement new waste management models that are capital-intensive and technology-driven at the cost of more socio-ecologically sustainable alternatives provided by waste pickers. 

Historically, waste pickers have been confronted with dangerous working conditions, social marginalization and persecution. This map shows how this precarious situation is now being worsened by a number of threats that, often as a result of global policy shifts, limit their access to recyclable waste. In what follows, we detail, first, the environmental and social contributions of waste pickers, second, the threats that undermine their livelihood, and third, their forms of resistance to these socio-environmental injustices. In times of crisis, threats to waste pickers are threats to humankind

Waste pickers’ social, environmental and economic contributions

Waste pickers contribute to local economies and the inclusion of socially marginalized groups, to public health and safety, and to environmental sustainability. The informal recycling sector in the Global South sustains a livelihood for about 19 to 24 million people, according to the ILO1. Although historically invisibilized, waste pickers around the world contribute to protecting the earth by collecting, sorting, and selling discarded materials found by door-to-door collection, on the streets, in containers and landfills. Their skills and knowledge about different materials such as metals, plastics, and paper enables them to re-valorize, re-use and extend the life of items cast aside. Their recycling rates are typically high, in the range from 20 to 50 percent, often higher than those achieved by municipal or private companies. In countries like Brazil or South Africa waste pickers do 90 percent of all recycling. In some countries, they are strongly organized in cooperatives and associations, enabling them to voice their claims towards the broader public, engage with civil society and even formally take up municipal waste services. In brief, despite the fact that they provide services to society completely free of cost, their work and rights often only remain insufficiently recognized.

Waste pickers are under threat

In the last decade, threats to waste picker livelihoods in the Global South have been triggered by capital-intensive and technology-driven public policy shifts towards privatization and formalization of the urban waste management sector. We can identify three main types of conflicts: incineration, privatization and urban space restrictions. 

First, technologies such as incineration are typically proposed as “sustainable” solutions to unsolved waste management problems, with large public subsidies from the Clean Development Mechanism. The first incinerator in Africa was built in Ethiopia in 2018 with Chinese investment and Danish technology. National bans on incineration are being challenged from the Philippines to Mexico. Incinerators are popping up like mushrooms, but they might be toxic ones. In cities like Delhiwaste pickers protest against them because they do not want to see their livelihood burnt, while citizens fear air pollution. In terms of climate change, while waste pickers cool down the earth, incinerators warm it up.

Second, companies are now realizing that waste has a monetary value – something that waste pickers have been aware of for decades. This, for example, results in privatization of landfills that displace waste pickers, sometimes leading to violent attacks and repression like in Johannesburg. The closure of problematic landfills has often led to the simple shifting of environmental damage (e.g. Belém and Rio de Janeiro). In general, privatization and the imposition of formal criteria in the public contracting for municipal waste management services have made lives harder for informal waste pickers (e.g. Cairo and Cape Coast). 

Third, restrictions in urban space result into discriminatory impacts on waste pickers such as the prohibition of animal- or human-drawn vehicles (e.g. in Porto Alegre and Montevideo) or the installation of “anti-poor”, “smart” containers (e.g. Buenos Aires and Bogota). In the name of modern, beautiful and hygienic city centers, waste pickers are denied access to certain urban areas, like in Phnom Penh

Resistance and mobilisation for social and environmental justice 

Waste pickers oppose policies that exclude them from their source of livelihood: recyclable waste. They struggle for social rights and the formal inclusion into municipal waste management to escape from precarious and dangerous conditions. They collectively organize to vizibilize their environmental services due to recycling, to fight discrimination and to empower their community. The largest mobilizations can be found in Latin American countries, but also in South Africa and India, among others.

The Global Alliance of Waste Pickers, supported by the NGO WIEGO (Women in Informal Employment: Globalizing and Organizing), is committed to support and strengthen organizations of more than 28 countries that form part of the network. Their aim is to include waste pickers as “actors in decision-making processes, with the goal of improving working conditions for their community, developing knowledge and capacity-building activities, and seeking the recognition and professionalization of their work”. Struggles against incineration have led to the emergence of civil society groups, many of them networked in the Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives, which has also been supportive of waste pickers and communities fighting against incineration.

While recognition for waste pickers’ contributions is growing in some places, most continue to face social marginalization and highly unsuitable working and living conditions. They often get little support from local governments, who in many cases fail to formally recognize the work and contributions of waste pickers, and instead further restrict their access to waste. Waste picker struggles for social and environmental justice hence continue at various fronts.

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