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Millions of people worldwide make a living collecting, sorting, recycling, and selling materials that someone else has thrown away. Vital actors in the informal economy, waste pickers provide widespread benefits to their communities, their municipalities and the environment. In many countries, waste pickers supply the only form of solid waste collection.
However, they often face low social status, deplorable living and working conditions, and little support from local governments.
Definition of Waste Pickers
The term waste pickers can be broadly defined as people who reclaim “reusable and recyclable materials from what others have cast aside as waste” (Samson 2009). Waste pickers can range from poor people rummaging through garbage in search of necessities such as food to informal private collectors of recyclables who sell to middlemen or businesses, as well as organized pickers/sorters linked to unions, cooperatives or associations. On this website, the term “waste picker” is used to refer to those who do the primary collecting and sorting of waste.
Waste pickers may collect household waste from the curbside, commercial and industrial waste from dumpsters, or litter from streets and urban waterways. Some live and work on municipal dumps – as many as 20,000 people in Kolkata, India and 15,000 in Mexico City, Mexico (Medina 2005).
Other waste pickers work as sorters in recycling warehouses or as processors in recycling plants owned by membership-based organizations (MBOs) (Dias 2010). Some are involved in cross-border activities, such as the Mexican waste pickers who work on both sides the US border (Medina 2007).
At the First World Conference of Waste Pickers in 2008, the term “waste pickers” was adopted for use in English to facilitate global networking: it is preferred to such derogatory terms as “scavengers.” Other languages have their own terms: catadores in Portuguese, recicladores in Spanish.
Across different categories, countries and regions worldwide, waste picking shares common aspects:
- Workers are subject to social stigma, face poor working conditions, and are frequently harassed.
- Waste picking is highly responsive to market-driven conditions for recyclables.
- Waste picking is often a family enterprise. It offers flexible working hours (inclusive to women) and a high level of adaptability.
- In some cities, most waste pickers are migrants (e.g. in Delhi, waste pickers are often Bangladeshi). In other places, they are likely to be from marginalized groups or rejected from global economic processes.
- Waste picking appears to be chaotic work but is very organized.
- Numbers of waste pickers fluctuate due to economic conditions and urban processes.
- Waste pickers are often not part of public solid waste management systems; they are socially invisible and seldom reported in official statistics.
- Waste picking is easily learned and usually does not require literacy. However, when working in a collective endeavour, some activities (for example, administrative tasks) do require literacy.
- Non-organized waste pickers are often recruited by middlemen.
To see the latest news from around the globe on waste pickers, visit our News & Events pages.
There are millions of waste pickers worldwide, but little reliable socio-economic or statistical information exists. Most studies are qualitative (ethnographies or social profiles of workers for particular cities or sites). Where quantitative studies exist, they frequently use a very small sample, making generalizations difficult. Since waste pickers are mobile and their population can fluctuate by season, estimation of a total population is difficult. Also, they may avoid researchers as waste pickers may fear information will be passed on to public officials, making it harder to collect sound data.
A 1988 World Bank study estimated that waste pickers comprised 1-2 per cent of the world’s population (Bartone 1988). A more recent study in India estimated waste pickers in that country numbered 1.5 million people, primarily women and those from socially marginalized groups (Chaturvedi 2010). There are an estimated 18,000 recicladores in Bogota, Colombia; 15,000 clasificadores in Montevideo, Uruguay; and 9,000 cartoneros in Buenos Aires, Argentina (Schamber et al. 2007).
Brazil is the only nation that systematically captures and reports official statistical data on waste pickers. Read more about Brazil's official statistics on waste pickers.
Waste Picker Contributions
The value of waste picking is increasingly important to global environmental efforts and the development of cities. There is growing recognition that waste pickers contribute to local economies, to public health and safety, and to environmental sustainability. Unfortunately, these contributions are rarely acknowledged by authorities.
- Public health and sanitation improve when waste pickers remove waste from urban areas not served by municipal garbage collection.
- Municipal expenses are reduced through the informal subsidization of solid waste management systems. In many cities, waste pickers supply the only form of waste collection. A 2010 UN Habitat publication says waste pickers perform between 50-100 per cent of all ongoing waste collection in most cities in developing countries – at no cost to the city budget. For more on the cost savings to cities, see Waste Pickers & Solid Waste Management.
- The environment benefits when waste pickers divert a significant quantity of materials from the waste stream. A 2007 study by the GTZ/CWG found that waste pickers recovered approximately 20 per cent of all waste material in three of the six cities studied. In one city, the rate was even higher due to the collection of organic matter for pig feeding (GTZ/CWG 2010).
- Reuse and recycling decreases the virgin materials needed for production, thus contributing to the conservation of natural resources and energy while reducing air and water pollution. Recovery of recyclable materials and organic matter contributes to the reduction of greenhouse gases (GHG) and to the mitigation of climate change.
- Livelihoods are created for waste pickers and those who recycle materials – usually very poor people who may not have other job opportunities. A significant number are women, and some are children. Penalizing this activity has a negative impact on poverty alleviation measures.
For specifics on waste pickers' contributions and WIEGO publications on the topic, see Waste Wise.
For many people in developing countries, especially those with limited education or opportunity, waste picking offers a livelihood. Flexible hours make it inclusive for women who have other care responsibilities.
The job of waste pickers is taking on particularly new importance as an employment opportunity for persons with limited education and skills in the current economic downturn.
Waste pickers’ earnings vary widely between regions by the type of work they do, and for women and men. For example, in Belgrade, waste pickers may earn US $100 monthly on average (Simpson-Hebert et al. 2006), while in Cambodia, the earnings can be as little as one dollar a day (ILO/IPEC 2004). In Santa Cruz, Bolivia, about 59 per cent of waste pickers earn below the minimum wage. However, although waste picking is the lowest paid part of the recycling chain in many places, these workers can earn more than the minimum wage; in Brazil and Mexico, some earn many times the minimum wage. In Brazil, RAIS database shows that a third (34%) of waste pickers earn 1.01 – 1.50 times the minimum wage, 29 per cent between 1.51 to 2.00 times minimum wage; 18 per cent between 2.01 to 3.00 times minimum wage; 7 per cent between 3.01 to 4.00 times minimum wage (Crivellari et al. 2008).
A gender analysis of RAIS data concluded that men earn much more than women in all age groups (Crivellari et al. 2008). In age groups with higher earnings, those receiving between 3 and 4 times the minimum wage, 98 per cent are men while only 2 per cent are women. That disparity is also found in the groups that receives between 4 and 5 times the minimum wage (5% women), between 5 and 7 times the minimum wage (3% women) and between 7 and 10 times the minimum wage (6% women). No women are found in the highest income groups, those that earn between 10 and 15 times and above 20 times the minimum wages.
Handling waste poses many health risks to workers. These are even greater for informal workers due to their daily unprotected exposure to contaminants and hazardous materials. Risks include contact with fecal matter, paper saturated by toxic materials, bottles and containers with chemical residues, health residues, contaminated needles, and heavy metals from batteries (Cointreau 2006). A lack of worker protection and poor access to health care aggravate these risks.
Risk of Injuries
Waste pickers face great risks of injury, especially those who work at open dumps and may be run over by trucks or become the victims of surface subsidence, slides and fires. They are also exposed to great quantities of toxic fumes.
Waste pickers also endure ergonomic hazards such as heavy lifting, static posture and repetition, and may have high incidences of low back and lower extremity pain. Some studies indicate a higher prevalence of minor psychiatric disorders amongst waste pickers, likely the result of stressful conditions (Da Silva et al. 2006).
Through the Social Protection Programme, WIEGO has undertaken a three year research project about occupational health and safety (OHS) for informal workers, including waste pickers. This involves working with membership-based organizations and partners to find out how to develop OHS in a way that can better meet the needs of informal workers.
Visit WIEGO's Microsite on Occupational Health & Safety.
Harassment, Disrespect and Violence
Treated as nuisances by authorities and with disdain by the public, waste pickers are usually ignored within public policy processes and frequently suffer low social status and self-esteem. They are particularly susceptible to violence by the police. They may face exploitation and intimidation by middlemen, which can affect their earnings. The significant number of women engaged in this occupation are particularly affected by exclusionary policies towards waste picking.
Recent trends – such as privatization of municipal solid waste management services, global approaches to climate change mitigation, and the global recession – have exacerbated the situation for some waste pickers:
- Privatization of municipal solid waste management services threatens the zabaleen community of waste pickers in Cairo, Egypt and waste pickers in Delhi, India. For more on this topic, read Chapter 6 of Refusing to be Cast Aside: Waste Pickers Organising Around the World by Melanie Samson.
- Global approaches to climate change mitigation, such as funding for incinerators and waste-to-energy plants that burn materials waste pickers could otherwise recycle, threaten rather than reward the work of waste pickers.
- The global recession has hit waste pickers hard. Research conducted by WIEGO and its partners in the Inclusive Cities project found the economic crisis caused a marked drop in the demand for and price of waste. For more information on this topic, see the Informal Economy/Links with Economic Crisis page.
Read about the life of Brazilian waste picker Dona Maria Bras.
In spite of their contributions to public health, the environment and the economy, waste pickers continue to suffer poor working conditions without recognition. In addition, the majority of waste pickers worldwide do not have access to any kind of state-sponsored social protection schemes. However, change is on its way. Membership-based organizations of waste pickers 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 selective waste collection. The recicladores in Bogota, Colombia have also achieved inclusion, and their struggle is detailed in this video series.
Progressive Waste Management in Brazil
“In Brazil, as in other countries, the system for recycling varies from city to city: some municipalities collect recyclables from recycling containers scattered at public places (a kind of drop-off system) and some have door-to-door collection of recyclables (separate from waste to be taken to the landfills) and taking recyclables to cooperatives of waste pickers for further sorting and commercialization. In Brazil, in 2007, the Basic Sanitation Law #11.445/07 altered the Public Administration Bid and Contract Law (Lei de Licitações e Contratos da Administração Pública), allowing the hiring of waste picker organizations without bid for service provision in municipal recycling schemes.”
– Sonia Dias, Waste Picker Sector Specialist for WIEGO, former Consultant of the Ministry of the Cities and Member of the Coordination Team of the Waste and Citizenship Forum of Minas Gerais State.
Replacement of repressive policies with inclusive policies that focus on legal backing, redistributive measures, social recognition and the strengthening of waste picker organizations is crucial. In a November 2012 Global Urbanist article, Sonia Dias argues for a holistic approach to solid waste management that recognizes the economic and environmental benefits of including informal waste pickers in waste management and planning.
WIEGO’s Urban Policies Programme generates research, policy analysis and good practice documentation on how urban policies affect waste pickers for the global Inclusive Cities project. For more information, see Legislation & Policies Beneficial to Waste Pickers.
There are also growing opportunities in the private sector. For example, in Mumbai and other cities in India, helping corporations deal with post-consumer waste is providing a niche to informal workers. Waste pickers are involved with companies such as Tetra Pak in the recovery and sorting of paper and plastic-aluminium into separate commodities, and with Coca Cola for shredding PET units.
Waste pickers,known for their independence and individualism, are increasingly motivated to organize and fight for recognition and a place within formal waste management systems. They are organizing in many different ways – cooperatives, associations, companies, unions, micro-enterprises. Some are even forming “women only” organizations in order to better confront gender inequalities. Research suggests women are more likely to belong to these organizations - a small-scale study in Brazil found that 56 per cent of the members of waste picker organizations, cooperatives and associations are women, while 44 per cent are men.1
Benefits of Organizing
Organizing benefits waste pickers by:
- raising social status and self-esteem
- improving members’ incomes and their quality of life, in part by circumventing middlemen
- improving working conditions and contributing to better health quality
- facilitating the development of networks
- providing institutional frameworks for hiring of waste pickers for local bodies/ firms
- preventing harassment and violence
- eliminating child labour in waste picking
Forging solidarity links across continents is an important strategy. Waste pickers have increased their global networking since the First World Conference of Waste Pickers in 2008 in Bogota, Colombia. Networking showcases successes and inspires nascent movements, helping develop organizations. At the Bogota conference, Bernardo Toro made a presentation on the importance of organizing for waste pickers.
The extent and depth to which waste pickers have organized varies across countries and regions.
In Latin America, some organizations are as old as the Cooperativa Antioqueña de Recolectores de Subproductos, formed in Medellín, Colombia in 1962. However, activism took a firmer hold in the 1990s. For example, a city-wide Asociación de Recicladores de Bogotá (ARB) formed in 1990 (read more about the accomplishments of ARB). In 2005 the first meeting of the Latin American Waste Picker Network (LAWPN) was held in Brazil. Today, the LAWPN includes movements and associations of waste pickers from 16 countries.
In India, the Alliance of Indian Wastepickers (AIW) is a national network of 35 organizations comprised of waste pickers and/or itinerant buyers in 22 cities. They focus on peer support, advocacy, and cross-learning. In Pune, a waste picker union known as KKPKP formed a non-profit cooperative of waste pickers called SWaCH. In 2008, SWaCH entered into an agreement with the Pune municipality to collect waste, and in subsequent years, the system was expanded to create a zero waste system in 16 wards that fully integrated informal waste pickers. Read about one family's changed circumstances as a result of their involvement with KKPKP. However, in January 2014, SWaCH cited non-payment of fees announced it will no longer work with the municipality. Read more.
The AIW newsletter provides specific examples of the value of organizing and the issues waste pickers are fighting to overcome.
In Asia, NGOs are working on the issues of waste in Bangladesh, Cambodia, China, Indonesia, the Philippines, and Thailand, with municipalities and citizens groups who understand the situation in these countries. Many waste pickers who are loosely organized internally, and represented by one of their own group or by an activist. Trade unions and networks of other groups have also been supporting or initiating new work in and with this sector, as have environmental NGOs, anti-incineration lobbyists and small community-based organizations, as well as groups working specifically on alternative decentralized recovery and processing of waste (vermicompost, biogas, etc.).2
In South Africa, waste pickers are beginning to organize -- associations, cooperatives, unions and micro-enterprises at the municipal level, and a national association is taking shape.3 The South African Waste Picker Association held its first meeting in July 2009. Read Options for Organizing Waste Pickers in South Africa by Jan Theron (WIEGO Publication Series, Organizing Brief No. 3, 2010).
See Waste Picker Networks for more information.
Waste pickers are fighting many battles on many fronts. Privatization of municipal solid waste management services is a great threat on all continents. Also, legal battles required to defend the right to work as recicladores in Colombia; and climate change issues on a global level, including the proliferation of incineration/waste-to-energy plants that burn materials waste pickers could recycle. In response to these pressures, waste pickers around the world have voiced a common set of demands which are discussed here. Refusing to be Cast Aside presents details on legal battles (chapter 5) (Samson 2009)being fought to defend the right to work as waste pickers.
In December, 2010 and again in 2011, the Global Alliance of Waste Pickers and Allies, which WIEGO supports, spoke at the United Nations Climate Change conferences to draw international attention to the value of their work, and the need for global policies that respect, rather than hinder their work. Read more about the waste pickers’ involvement in climate change negotiations.
Waste pickers organizations can in turn benefit everyone by building more robust and sustainable solid waste systems, reducing carbon emissions and creating a cleaner and healthier environment. To find out more about specific waste picker MBOs and associations, please visit WIEGO’s WORD database.
1 Data were collected in 2007 by CATAUNIDOS, a commercial network of nine cooperative enterprises in Belo Horizonte Metropolitan Area and published in INSEA – Instituto Nenucia De DeSenvolvimento Sustentavel. Perfil sócio-econômico dos catadores da rede Cataunidos. Belo Horizonte: INSEA/UFMG/FELC, 2007. 31 p. Relatório.
2 Mapping exercise carried out by KKPKP for the CWG/WIEGO mapping process (internal report).
3 Source: personal communication with Melanie Samson.