New research released today – ahead of International Waste Pickers’ Day on March 1 – highlights the role and impact of those who make a living from what others throw away. The study challenges the common view that waste pickers have no place in modern solid waste management systems.
Waste pickers are among the most invisible workers in the informal economy and often work in deplorable conditions. The study shows how waste pickers in five developing countries play a role in keeping cities clean and highlights the challenges they face in recovering recyclable materials.
In cities where local governments have provided better access to recyclables, integrated waste pickers into formal solid waste management systems and provided protected spaces for sorting and baling waste, waste pickers have report higher earnings, improved door-to-door waste removal services, savings to municipal coffers and reduction in on-the-job health issues.
However, waste pickers in all five study cities – Belo Horizonte, Brazil; Bogota, Colombia; Pune, India; Nakuru, Kenya; and Durban, South Africa – reported significant challenges. Study respondents experienced increased competition from other waste pickers, a reduction in prices for recyclables, and stigmatization and harassment.
These challenges impact family well-being in countries where waste picking is the only work option for many poor people. In Pune, India, for example, waste picking is the main source of household income for 85 per cent of waste pickers’ households. Only 25 per cent of respondents reported having another work activity, indicating the relevance of waste picking as a main source of income.
With the exception of Durban, none of the cities reported formal wage employment as their primary household earnings. Households in some cities received additional income from government grants, illustrating the need for a cushion to fall back on in times of instability.
“Waste pickers are closely linked to local governments and to the urban economy,” says Sonia Dias, Waste Picker Sector Specialist of Women in Informal Employment: Globalizing and Organizing (WIEGO), who co-authored the study with Melanie Samson, WIEGO’s Africa Waste Sector Specialist. “Formally integrating waste pickers into the solid waste management system makes sense because, in many cities, these workers are the ones who are already providing the only collection of household refuse.”
The study findings imply that policymakers should devise better programmes to reduce vulnerability in workers’ lives, create opportunities to integrate waste pickers into formal systems, and effectively protect basic rights to pursue waste as a livelihood. It also recommends that cities address the vulnerabilities of waste pickers and the households that depend on their earnings by:
Considering the technical capacities and capabilities of waste pickers in solid waste services to support productivity in the informal economy;
- Developing a system whereby waste pickers are allowed access to recyclables;
- Providing infrastructure to conduct recycling activities;
- Carrying out educational campaigns to change stigmas against informal workers; and
- Working with waste picker organizations to identify a holistic approach to formalization, including offering capacity training and management courses to improve waste pickers’ skills.
About the Study: The Informal Economy Monitoring Study (IEMS) examines working conditions in the informal economy for home-based workers, street vendors, and waste pickers in 10 cities in Africa, Asia, and Latin America. For the waste-related segment of the IEMS, WIEGO, which led the study, collaborated with local partner organizations of informal workers in five cities: Asociación de Recicladores de Bogotá (ARB); Instituto Nenuca de Desenvolvimento Sustentável – INSEA and the waste pickers’ networks Redesol and Cataunidos in Belo Horizonte; Asiye eTafuleni in Durban; the Kenya National Alliance of Street Vendors and Informal Traders (KENASVIT) in Nakuru; and the waste pickers’ union Kagad Kach Patra Kashtakari Panchayat (KKPKP) in Pune. The Waste Picker Sector Report, an executive summary, and additional information can be found at www.wiego.org.
About WIEGO: Women in Informal Employment: Globalizing and Organizing (WIEGO) is a global action research-policy network that seeks to improve the status of the working poor, especially women, in the informal economy. It does so by highlighting the informal economy through improved statistics and research; by helping to strengthen member-based organizations of informal workers; and by promoting policy dialogues and processes that include informal workers. Visit www.wiego.org for more information.
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