PROVIDENCE, R.I. — There is a growing industry in the informal sector of many urban areas: waste picking. Waste pickers have the ability to reduce poverty, boost economies, conserve resources and save money.
Despite the negative stigma that creates a stench around their livelihoods, over 15 million people participate in the trade. Many countries are formalizing this informal work to improve waste management systems and to improve the work environment (and the natural environment) of their people.
Waste pickers are able to reduce the amount of refuse that ends up in landfills. In Jarkarta, Indonesia, they decrease the volume of waste by 30 percent. In Mexico, 3,000 workers collect 353,000 tons of waste per year. There is 188,500 tons of trash produced in India’s urban centers each day; a number which could be reduced by stronger backing for waste pickers.
The support needed for waste pickers to make a dynamic change in garbage clean-up comes from government recognition. This is a long process, and many governments are still conflicted over moving away from privatized waste management.
Unionizing is a vital step toward recognition. In São Paulo, Brazil, waste pickers began organizing in 1980. In 1989, they were able to work together to protest for their right to collect trash on public roadways. It was not until 2001 that Brazil’s government finally recognized the value of waste pickers and recognized the profession.
Now, more than 400,000 workers in 1,100 waste picking associations work to clean Brazil’s streets. This collaboration between workers has spread around the globe. In Bogotá, Colombia, there are 15,000 waste pickers that have been integrated into the city’s waste management.
Pune, India has unionized and been incorporated into the municipality’s waste management, too. In Pune, the benefits provided by unionizing allowed waste pickers to create a self-employed cooperative. Now, for a small fee, more than 40,000 households use waste pickers for their trash disposal.
The creation of cooperatives for waste pickers allows for safer, more efficient work environments. In an industry where many workers are from vulnerable groups, like women and recent immigrants, the protection provided by cooperatives supports these groups in a potentially hostile work environment.
In addition to support, cooperatives provide equipment, like uniforms, protective gear and rolling bins for hauls.
Organized waste pickers work in cleaner environments, too. Many do not need to dig through dumpsters and landfills, but instead go straight to households and pick up trash there, sometimes pre-sorted by the homeowners. The efficiency involved allows for more money in fewer hours, creating opportunities for workers to spend more time with their children. This also cuts down on child labor, since whole families no longer need to work to survive. Instead, children can attend school.
Technology is helping waste pickers, too. Pulling away from the standard NGO-style of help, the website I Got Garbage aims to make their business sustainable. The site allows workers a more efficient system to increase their own profits.
I Got Garbage provides workers with budget smartphones, plans out their routes for them in the most efficient way possible and has even created a database of buyers so waste pickers know where to find people who want to purchase their recyclables. While there are still bugs to be worked out, the plan is to expand the business to more parts of the country.
While many countries are embracing waste picking, there is still opposition. In Saudi Arabia, the Jeddah Municipality is trying to stop illegal African immigrants from sorting through garbage. The idea is that it is “spoiling the look of the city.” Because of the informal nature of the work, often times garbage ends up strewn along the street, tossed out from dumpsters. This has prompted the municipality to start lessening the amount of dumpsters in the city, and to try to push waste removal to the outskirts of the city. Even in Brazil, waste pickers are still viewed as lesser. To make way for the World Cup, 300 waste pickers were evicted from their homes. They were not allowed to bring their carts or equipment with them.
In addition to being viewed as dirty, waste pickers are still viewed as inferior.
Gustavo Petro, the mayor of Bogotá, tried to incorporate waste pickers into the economy, but the transition period from private waste disposal to a waste picker-led system left so much garbage lying around that Petro was temporarily removed from office. The administration did not wait for the transition to take effect.
Despite all the hardships facing waste pickers, the trade is still growing. Among Latin American countries, 90 percent of waste pickers were proud of their career choices. With the growing support for the profession, workers can have cleaner, profitable jobs that help the environment, themselves and their cities.
– Monica Roth