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Millions of people worldwide make a living collecting, sorting, recycling, and selling materials that someone else has thrown away.
There is growing recognition that waste pickers contribute to the local economy, to public health and safety, and to environmental sustainability. However, they often face low social status, deplorable living and working conditions, and little support from local governments.
Terms and Categories
The term “waste picker” was adopted at the First World Conference of Waste Pickers in Bogota, Colombia in 2008 to facilitate global networking. It is preferred to derogatory terms such as “scavenger”. Other languages have their own preferred terms: catadores in Portuguese, recicladores in Spanish.
Waste pickers may collect household or commercial/industrial waste. They may collect from private waste bins on the curb or from dumpsters, along the streets and waterways or on municipal dumps and landfills. Some rummage through garbage in search of necessities; others collect and sell recyclables to middlemen or businesses. Some work in recycling warehouses or recycling plants owned by their cooperatives or associations. Work situations differ greatly across countries, but there are some basic categories of waste pickers.
The Informal Economy Monitoring Study (IEMS), coordinated by WIEGO, involved quantitative/qualitative research on 763 waste pickers in five cities in Africa, Asia and Latin America. It found waste pickers offer a range of economic benefits.
Waste picking provides crucial income for people and households. For 65 per cent of the IEMS sample, earnings from waste picking were the main source of household income. Only about one quarter had any other income.
In Belo Horizonte, Brazil, waste pickers said their cooperatives create opportunities for people, sometimes “taking them off the streets.”
Waste pickers provide reusable materials to other enterprises. More than three quarters of waste pickers in the IEMS sample sell to formal businesses. Between one quarter and one half supply materials to informal businesses, private individuals and the general public.
- In Pune, India waste pickers collect organic matter for composting and biogas.
- In Belo Horizonte, Brazil and Nakuru, Kenya, material is sold to artists and groups to re-imagine.
Others profit from waste pickers’ work. Many waste pickers sell to buyers, who then sell the material for a profit. Waste pickers also pay private carriers and transport drivers.
WIEGO. 2014. The Urban Informal Workforce: Waste Pickers/Recyclers. IEMS Sector Summary.
Dias, Sonia M. 2012. Not to be Taken for Granted: What Informal Waste Pickers Offer the Urban Economy. The Global Urbanist.
By picking up discarded material from public spaces, waste pickers contribute to cleanliness and help beautify the city.
Waste pickers divert a significant quantity of materials from the waste stream. A 2007 study found waste pickers recovered approximately 20 per cent of all waste material in three of six cities studied (GTZ/CWG 2007). The study found more than 80,000 people were responsible for recycling about 3 million tons per year of waste across the six cities.
Recycling is one of the cheapest, fastest ways to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Recycling reduces emissions 25 times more than incineration does (Tellus Institute 2008)—yet privatized incineration increasingly displaces waste pickers around the world.
Reuse and recycling of materials decreases the amount of virgin materials needed for production, conserving natural resources and energy while reducing air and water pollution.
For a full discussion, see Urban Informal Workers & The Green Economy.
Achtell, Ernest. 2013. Waste Pickers and Carbon Finance: Issues to Consider. WIEGO Technical Brief No. 7.
In many countries, waste pickers supply the only form of solid waste collection at little or no cost to municipalities.
- Public health and sanitation improves when waste pickers remove waste from urban areas not served by municipal garbage collection. As one IEMS participant in Pune said, “The city gets healthier, but we get sicker.”
- Municipal expenses are reduced through subsidization of solid waste management systems. According to the UN publication Solid Waste Management in the World’s Cities, waste pickers perform 50-100 per cent of ongoing waste collection in most cities in developing countries (UN Habitat 2010).
- Waste pickers divert tons of material from dumpsites/landfills.
For more on the cost savings to cities of solid waste collection, sorting, and disposal by waste pickers, see Waste Pickers & Solid Waste Management.
Dias, Sonia. 2010.
Gestão de Resíduos Sólidos, Catadores, Participação e Cidadania – Novas Articulações? - Português
(Solid Waste Management, Waste Pickers, Participation and Citizenship - New Possibilities?)
WIEGO Working Paper (Urban Policies) No. 18
Scheinberg, Anne. 2012. Informal Sector Integration and High Performance Recycling: Evidence from 20 Cities. WIEGO Working Paper (Urban Policies) No. 23.
It is believed that millions of people worldwide earn their living from recycling waste. Little reliable statistical data exist, however. Estimation of the total population is difficult, since waste pickers are mobile and their population may fluctuate by season. Also, waste pickers may avoid researchers, fearing information will be passed on to public officials.
Brazil is the only nation that systematically captures and reports official statistical data on waste pickers. Data collected by Brazil’s official statistical system found over 229,000 people did this work in 2008 (Dias 2010). These waste pickers are responsible for the high rates of recycling in Brazil – nearly 92 per cent of aluminium and 80 per cent of cardboard were recycled in 2008.
Read more about Brazil's official statistics on waste pickers.
According to statistics published in Women and Men in the Informal Economy: A Statistical Picture (ILO-WIEGO 2013), where waste pickers have been identified, they represent less than 1 per cent of the urban workforce:
- 0.1 - 0.4 per cent in seven West African cities
- 0.7 per cent in South Africa (this includes both formally employed and informal waste pickers)
- 0.1 per cent in India
These small percentages, however, represent large numbers of people. Because of the challenges of gathering data on waste pickers, the estimates may be low.
Characteristics of Waste Pickers
The IEMS study found that the majority of waste pickers had generally low levels of formal education. In many places the work was done by primarily disadvantaged groups. For example in Pune, India, waste picking remains confined to the Scheduled Castes. And in many cities, migrants with few other employment options had taken up this work.
See a summary of the IEMS findings: The Urban Informal Workforce: Waste Pickers/Recyclers (español)
Waste picking is often a family enterprise. It offers flexible working hours (especially important for women) and a high level of adaptability. It is easily learned and requires no education and little training. And for many of the poorest people around the globe, it is one of the only livelihood options.
However, waste workers are often subject to social stigma, face poor working conditions, and are frequently harassed.
Access to Waste
Access to waste and privatization of waste are key issues that impact waste pickers’ livelihoods. At the First Global Strategic Workshop of Waste Pickers in Pune, India in 2012, waste picker representatives from 22 countries identified privatization of access to waste (and the related move of final waste disposal systems toward incineration and waste-to-energy schemes) as the biggest common threat to waste pickers’ livelihoods. Read the workshop report.
Waste pickers in the IEMS cities echoed these concerns, with 73 per cent indicating access to waste is a moderate or major problem.
Waste pickers’ earnings vary widely between regions, by the type of work they do, and for women and men.
The IEMS captured total turnover for waste pickers, but not incomes, since it did not consider input costs. In Belo Horizonte, Brazil, where waste pickers are recognized and supported by governments and organized into strong cooperatives, waste pickers appear to have higher incomes than other informal workers. By contrast, waste pickers in Nakuru, Kenya subsist on meagre returns. The average turnover of respondents in Nakuru – before accounting for expenses such as storage or transportation – was under US $2/day.
Across IEMS cities/continents, men consistently earned more than women waste pickers. A gender analysis of official data in Brazil’s RAIS database also concluded that men in waste picking earn much more than women (Crivellari et al. 2008).
Waste pickers’ earnings are impacted by market-driven prices for recyclables.
- Focus groups in every IEMS city ranked unstable prices as among the most significant driving force in their work.
- Four in five waste pickers in the IEMS sample reported large variations in income, low profits and too many competitors.
- A large proportion in the IEMS survey said earnings had declined in the past year: 47 per cent in Pune and 62 per cent in Nakuru.
Waste pickers require adequate space for sorting and storing collected materials. In the IEMS, 59 per cent said inadequate space is a problem. Without storage, material cannot be held until it can fetch a higher price; unsheltered materials can be degraded or ruined by weather.
Macroeconomic trends like inflation and recession impact waste pickers. The rising cost of living and the increasing numbers of waste pickers, including migrants, were the most cited problems affecting all waste pickers in the IEMS study.
The global recession hit waste pickers hard. Research conducted by WIEGO and its Inclusive Cities partners found the economic crisis caused a marked drop in the demand for and price of waste. At the same time, newly unemployed people entered the profession. For more, see Informal Economy/Links with Economic Crisis.
Within value chains, waste pickers are in a disadvantaged position. Most in the IEMS study reported difficulty negotiating better prices from buyers, and focus groups in almost every city ranked exploitative or dependent relations with buyers among the most significant negative drivers.
Waste pickers provide recyclable materials to formal enterprises. More than three quarters of waste pickers in the sample say their main buyers are formal businesses. Between one quarter and one half also supply recyclable materials to informal businesses, private individuals and the general public.
Social stigmatization compounds waste pickers’ difficulties – 97 per cent of waste pickers in Bogota and Durban said social exclusion was a problem in their work; 76 per cent in Nakuru experienced social exclusion. However, waste pickers’ organizations help counteract social and legal exclusion (see Organization & Voice, below).
Harassment is a significant problem. Treated as nuisances by authorities and with disdain by the public, waste pickers are usually ignored within public policy processes and may even be arrested or physically assaulted. They may face exploitation and intimidation by middlemen, which can affect their earnings. Overall, 47 per cent of waste pickers surveyed in the IEMS indicated that harassment was a key issue affecting their work. In Bogota and Durban, the problem was reported by over 80 per cent of waste pickers.
Gender & Waste
Women engaged in this occupation typically earn less than men and often face other forms of inequality. A project in Latin America has been addressing gender inequality in waste picking activities. Read more.
Occupational Health & Safety
Handling waste poses many health risks. Informal waste pickers are exposed to contaminants and hazardous materials, from fecal matter and medical waste to toxic fumes and chemicals. Those who work at open dumps face risks caused by trucks, fires and surface slides. Some must take collected waste home to sort or store, introducing dangers to the home. A lack of worker protection and poor access to health care aggravate these risks.
Waste pickers also endure ergonomic hazards such as heavy lifting and repetitive motion, and may experience back and lower extremity pain. Through its Social Protection Programme, WIEGO has done work on occupational health and safety (OHS) for waste pickers. One facet of the project involved the design of more ergonomically appropriate equipment. In India, working with the waste pickers’ union KKPKP and the Self-Employed Women’s Association (SEWA), new pushcarts were designed and tested. Waste pickers using the new carts could carry an extra bag of refuse worth about 20-25 rupees in earnings. One woman reported saving 400 rupees in medical expenses after using the SEWA equipment. To learn more, see Occupational Health & Safety.
Read about the life of Brazilian waste picker Dona Maria Bras.
Fernández, Lucía. 2012. Paisajes-basura: Dinámicas y Externalidades Territoriales del Reciclaje en Montevideo, Uruguay (Waste-scapes: Recycling Dynamics and Spacial Externalities in Montevideo, Uruguay). WIEGO Working Paper (Urban Policies) No. 25. (español)
Whether and how informal waste pickers are included in municipal waste systems varies greatly. Worldwide, most waste pickers are not recognized for their contributions and do not have access to state-sponsored social protection.
Where waste pickers are organized, this is changing. Membership-based organizations and other progressive entities are helping cities recognize the vital role waste pickers play, and encouraging authorities to design more progressive policies. Cities like Belo Horizonte, Brazil, Lima, Peru and Pune, India are developing policies that integrate waste pickers into waste collection and recycling.
An exclusionary policy environment harms livelihoods. In Bogotá and Durban, more than 89 per cent in the IEMS sample said regulations and by-laws regarding waste are a problem.
A supportive policy environment positively impacts waste pickers’ livelihoods. The Belo Horizonte municipality partners with waste pickers and their organizations, providing infrastructure, subsidies and worker education. Despite some concerns raised (such as deteriorating infrastructure) during the IEMS focus groups, 63 per cent said they get positive support from the city.
Replacement of repressive policies with inclusive policies focused on legal backing, redistributive measures, social recognition and the strengthening of waste picker organizations is crucial. For examples of regulatory initiatives with positive outcomes, see Waste Pickers and the Law.
Dias, Sonia. 2011. Recycling in Belo Horizonte, Brazil – An Overview of Inclusive Programming. WIEGO Policy Brief (Urban Policies) No. 3. (español)
Dias, Sonia. 2011. The Municipal Waste and Citizenship Forum: A Platform for Social Inclusion and Participation. WIEGO Policy Brief (Urban Policies) No. 5. (português | español)
Dias, Sonia. 2011. Overview of the Legal Framework for Inclusion of Informal Recyclers in Solid Waste Management in Brazil. WIEGO Policy Brief (Urban Policies) No. 6. (português | español)
IJgosse, Jeroen. 2012. Paying Waste Pickers for Environmental Services: A Critical Examination of Options Proposed in Brazil. WIEGO Technical Brief (Urban Policies) No. 6. (español.)
Waste pickers are increasingly motivated to organize and fight for recognition. In an increasing number of cities, waste pickers have formed collectives to advocate for their inclusion in municipal planning around solid waste management.
In some countries, such as Brazil, Colombia and India, waste pickers now have the right to sell to or bid on contracts with the municipality. Read more.
Through the Global Alliance of Waste Pickers and Allies, waste pickers’ representatives have also taken the world stage at international climate change conferences to highlight the need for global policies that respect, rather than hinder, their work. Learn about Waste Pickers’ at UN Climate Change Negotiations.
In 2013, waste pickers’ organizations played an active role at the International Labour Conference (ILC) 2013, where “Sustainable Development, Green Jobs and Decent Work” was the theme. Read the delegation’s report.
Dias, Sonia. 2011. Integrating Informal Workers into Selective Waste Collection: The Case of Belo Horizonte, Brazil. WIEGO Policy Brief (Urban Policies) No. 4. (português | español.)
Chikarmane, Poornima. 2012. Integrating Waste Pickers into Municipal Solid Waste Management in Pune, India. WIEGO Policy Brief (Urban Policies) No. 8.
Samson, Melanie. 2009. Refusing to be Cast Aside: Waste Pickers Organising Around the World.
WIEGO. 2013. Waste Pickers: The Right to Be Recognized as Workers.