On bikes and on foot, with trikes, pushcarts and more, informal waste pickers are an active and persistent feature of waste management systems across the Asia-Pacific region. Daily waste pickers make a living by collecting, sorting and extracting recyclable waste from city streets, markets and dumpsites. Yet, despite collecting over half of all recyclable plastic feedstocks and preventing the uncontrolled release of waste into the environment, these informal workers remain undervalued and overlooked.
COVID-19 has created new challenges for waste pickers trying to maintain their services and prevent marine plastic pollution. Income losses have impacted as many as 829 million informal workers across the Asia-Pacific and now 636 million vulnerable people are at risk of being pushed into extreme poverty. A recent study in Bangkok found that 14 per cent of informal waste pickers experienced hunger in 2020 as daily wages dropped. The most significant impacts on waste pickers are the closing of recycling shops, reductions in material prices and heightened exposure to hazardous medical waste.
As waste systems slowed during 2020, the production, consumption and waste of plastic products grew. In Bangkok, growing demand for food delivery and online shopping led to a 62 per cent increase in plastic waste generation. As the main sources of plastic pollution, cities are at the forefront of action to meet Sustainable Development Goals 11, 12 and 14. Scaling engagement between policymakers and the informal waste sector presents a unique opportunity to support local communities and reduce plastic pollution.
The ESCAP project Closing the Loop, supported by the Government of Japan, is working closely with four ASEAN cities to help reduce their plastic pollution. In partnership with Women in Informal Employment: Globalizing and Organizing (WIEGO), ESCAP has created an eLearning course to inspire circular economy solutions for tackling urban plastic waste.
Closing the Loop and WIEGO have identified ten principles to guide the development of inclusive waste management systems:
- Nothing for us without us
Inclusive waste management systems require bottom-up inputs from the affected local communities. Multi-stakeholder assemblies, such as India's Solid Waste Management Round Tables, can provide open platforms for diverse actors to come together and plan waste management solutions.
- Build on what already exists
The informal waste sector is shaped by its local economic, social and environmental factors. Policymakers need to understand these stakeholders to identify shared goals and opportunities to enhance waste management services. This understanding begins by coordinating with local experts and community representatives.
- Adopt gender-sensitive approaches
Waste pickers are disproportionately women. Waste picker organizations can take gender-centric approaches where women are encouraged to fill leadership roles in organizations or are empowered to be responsible for their finances.
- Organize waste picker groups
Organizing waste pickers brings many development benefits including reduced risk of exploitation, improved incomes and quality of life, higher social status and the ability to advocate for workers' rights. For city policymakers, they provide an important framework for building long-term relationships with waste pickers.
- De-stigmatize waste work
Waste pickers are subject to social stigma amplified by exclusionary waste management policies. Rather than overlooking their role, cities can raise awareness by communicating the benefits of their services. One of the most powerful ways to overcome stigma towards informal waste workers is by supporting their organizations with government contracts that include advocacy and community outreach.
- Conduct training at all levels
All city stakeholders need to understand the interactions between formal and informal economies. Capacity-building and training for waste pickers, city institutions, civil society and the private sector is vital to develop best practices and a shared understanding of waste management roles and responsibilities.
- Protect essential workers
Waste pickers face hazardous labour conditions but nevertheless provide an essential service. In the context of COVID-19, the provision of personal protective equipment in the informal sector has never been more critical. Studies have shown a high readiness of workers to respond to safety protocols. Thus governments and the waste industry have an essential role in supporting access to PPE and adequate infrastructure.
- Prioritize low technology practices
Some forms of waste management modernization can displace existing networks of informal workers. Pro-poor interventions that support and improve existing practices are important to secure waste picker livelihoods, particularly for women and others who are more susceptible to displacement. Cities can support the collection of waste with manual tools, like pushcarts, and can accommodate decentralized services that promote employment.
- Provide payment for services
Waste pickers provide some of the only waste management and recycling services in many cities. They access difficult-to-reach and low-income areas, fulfil critical service gaps and so deserve fair payment for their work.
- Focus on eradicating poverty
Inclusive waste management systems should be designed with a long-term objective of eradicating poverty for vulnerable groups. By integrating informal waste pickers cities can create sustainable employment opportunities, improve their waste management services and support local communities.
The informal waste sector is a valuable asset in the global effort to reduce plastic pollution. These principles should be applied to support sustainable, local and cost-effective waste management solutions and leverage this productive workforce to preserve the environment.
To learn how to apply these principles in practice and for more information on tackling plastic pollution, please enrol in our free eLearning course.
Informal waste pickers can no longer be overlooked in their significant contribution to reducing marine plastic pollution. Initiatives like the ESCAP Closing the Loop and WIEGO Reducing Waste in Coastal Cities projects are helping to enable cities and waste pickers to implement and advocate for marine plastic pollution prevention.