Closing the Plastic Waste Loop – how do waste pickers contribute?

Published on 5 December 2017

The circular economy as a solution to ocean plastic pollution is beginning to gain more momentum internationally, as it becomes increasingly obvious that our current linear model of ‘take, make, dispose’ is no longer sustainable. It is an issue that will be discussed at a high level side event at this year’s United Nations Environment Assembly, organised by the EU and UN Environment with event partners IDS, Chatham House and Ellen MacArthur Foundation. The effects of the transition from the linear to circular economy, on informal waste pickers in developing countries is a pivotal issue for inclusive livelihoods, particularly Brazil and India, but the question that remains is who will drive this change?

Informal waste pickers in the informal circular economy

Inefficient public waste management services in developing countries such as Brazil and India, often presents a source of employment and livelihoods for informal waste pickers. These are self-employed individuals from marginalised social groups in the urban poor, who perform waste collection and recycling activities in order to obtain a small source of income for survival. The plight of waste pickers has gained heightened international attention through the killing of Ricardo Nasciento, a homeless catador (Portuguese for waste picker), who was shot dead in July 2017 by military police in a public space of Sao Paolo – where 20,000 catadores collect and manage up to 90 per cent of the municipality’s recycling.

In many countries, government and business have been struggling to implement sustainable practices conducive to the large-scale recycling of plastics. While waste pickers around the world continue to work in precarious situations, a significant body of literature has unveiled the benefits of the informal sector in closing the waste management cycle, despite being considered a marginalised group and using simple techniques and equipment. The World Business Council on Sustainable Development has documented the contribution of the informal sector for plastics collection and recycling in India, highlighting also the contributions to a significant number of the Sustainable Development Goals.

Whether there is a place for waste pickers in the future circular economy and what this means for their livelihoods is uncertain. No doubt, including informal waste pickers into formal waste management systems is a challenge which is political, socio-economic and environmental. The modernisation of waste management practices and the push for waste-to-energy plants in middle income countries has already impacted waste picker’s livelihoods, as there is often less high quality plastics waste for them to recycle, sometimes creating a fierce environment to access the waste.

Remaining challenges for inclusion of waste pickers

Three main obstacles need to be overcome to include waste pickers in the formal circular economy:

1) The need to strengthen the organisation of waste pickers into Waste Picker Organisations. In order to strengthen waste picker livelihoods, self-organised cooperatives play an important. The case of Brazil, more specifically the Sao Paulo Municipal Area, shows how the collaboration of waste pickers, with the support of NGOs, can develop the inclusion of their work in waste management and improve their livelihoods.

2) The lack of professionalism of waste pickers to collect, recycle and sell materials of high value, such as electronics. To ensure that waste pickers are included in the transition to a formal circular economy, the correct infrastructure, skills and capabilities need to be invested in.

3) The lack of preparedness of governments in including marginalised groups in waste management. This can be seen in the comparison of Brazil and India. In Brazil the collective action of waste picker cooperatives nationwide exhibited the social power and influence on public policies, where in 2001 Brazil’s national waste picker movement – Movimento Nacional dos Catadores de Materiais Recivlaveis – was established. This prompted a multi-stakeholder approach, as well as becoming formally organised, empowering their rights as economic actors in solid waste management.

In Delhi, on the other hand, although the municipality somewhat facilitated waste pickers to recycle, in 2005 the government took steps shifting towards the privatisation of waste management involving the formal sector, which barred waste pickers access to waste. To ensure a transition to an inclusive circular economy in cities, it is vital that policy measures do not further marginalise, and consider that livelihoods are central in creating inclusive regulation.

Who will bring about this change?

In the context of Green Transformations, four different narratives and pathways have emerged which are also relevant for the shift from a linear economy to a circular economy. The four narratives that pave the way for this transformation to occur include:

  • Marketization
  • State-led transformations
  • Techno-centric solutions
  • Citizen-Led approaches

Having analysed the various enabling factors that aid waste pickers to contribute to closing the waste management cycle in Brazil and India, we want to emphasise that for an inclusive circular economy to occur, a transformation from above and below is needed. The theory that Green Transformations in urban contexts are accelerated via multi-level governance models has also been supported in the cases of Brazil and India, where collaboration between a public, private and civic actors have enabled effective conditions for waste pickers.

Citizen and state-led narratives

In both cases the conditions enabling waste pickers to recycle are driven by a citizen-led narrative. The citizen-led drive in Sao Paulo Municipal Area was felt more than in the case of Delhi, where the predominant drive identified was the marketisation narrative; but lacked a stronger State-led narrative which has inhibited informal waste pickers to recycle. On the other hand, due to the nature of collecting and buying recyclable, a marketisation approach was visible in the Sao Paulo Municipal Area. However through a state led drive, informal waste pickers were able to be included in formalised solid waste management activities.

The future prospects of informal waste pickers in relation to the circular economy still remain to be explored further. Transformative social science research will be needed to determine what an inclusive circular economy will look like for waste pickers in developing countries, from policy and regulation analysis, to how the change of product design in the North will affect livelihoods in the South. For the circular economy to be inclusive and improve livelihoods in developing countries, this marginalized group must be taken into consideration.

Photo credit: By Koshy Koshy from Faridabad, Haryana, India (Floating rag picker uploaded by jkadavoor) CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

The views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author/s and do not necessarily reflect the views or policies of IDS.


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