Waste Pickers & Solid Waste Management

In some countries, waste pickers provide the only form of solid waste collection, providing widespread public benefits and achieving high recycling rates.

In Brazil, official data shows that over 250,000 persons engage in waste picking in that country (Crivellari, Dias and Pena 20081). This small proportion of the population is responsible for high rates of recycling. CEMPRE – a not-for-profit that promotes recycling through integrated waste management in Brazil – published data in its Technical Notes series that showed nearly 92 per cent of aluminium and 80 per cent of cardboard in Brazil was recycled in 2008. As only 7 per cent of municipalities have implemented official source-segregation schemes, the organization concluded the high rates of recycling are achieved by waste pickers (organized or non-organized) working mainly outside municipal recycling schemes.

Cities realize financial benefits when they integrate traditional waste pickers in their solid waste management systems. A GTZ/CWG study that covered six cities in 2007 shows the value and contribution of informal waste pickers to solid waste management systems.

Table 1
2007 GTZ/CWG Findings 


Number of waste pickers

Average earnings
(Euro per day)

Child earnings
(% of adult)

Women earnings (as % of men’s earnings)

Total recycled

Total recycled

Total avoided costs for collection plus avoided costs for disposal for waste system (x Euro 1000/year)

Cairo (Egypt)








Cluj –Napoca (Romania)








Lima (Peru)








Lusaka (Zambia)








Pune (India)








Quezón City (The Philippines)









Total 6 cities










Sources: GTC/CWG 2007; Agnes 2009; WATSAN 20102

The main findings of the GTZ/CWG study are elaborated here.

  • More than 80,000 people and their families are responsible for recycling about 3 million tons per year of waste in the six study cities. Due to the recycling efforts of the waste pickers, these cities do not have to spend as much on waste collection and disposal: realizing a combined costs savings of around 38.2 million Euros per year. The graph below illustrates this.
  • In terms of environmental contribution, the study found that in three cities, waste pickers recovered approximately 20 per cent of all materials that enter the waste stream; in one of the cities, they were responsible for an even higher rate due to their collection of organic matter for pig feeding. This means that a significant quantity of materials is diverted from disposal and returned to recycling industries, decreasing the amount of virgin materials needed and contributing to the conservation of natural resources and energy while reducing air and water pollution. Recovery of recyclable materials and organic matter leads to the reduction of greenhouse gases (GHG) and to the mitigation of climate change, making the contribution of waste pickers invaluable.
  • In terms of their economic contribution, waste pickers contribute to the reduction of costs in municipal expenses. In some cities in the developing world subsidize formal solid waste systems. This saves the city money and improves the environmental footprint of its solid waste at no cost to the city budget.

Figure 1
Cost Savings of Waste Pickers for Municipal Waste Collection and Disposal, by City 

Solid Waste Management Chart

Source: Graph created by WIEGO from data found in Table 1.

Figure 2 presents estimates of the percentage of total recycled waste that is collected and recycled by waste pickers in six cities. 

 Figure 2
Proportion of Total Recycled Waste Collected by Informal Waste Pickers, by City 

Solid Waste Management Graph

Source: Graph created by WIEGO from data found in Table 1.

In effect, waste pickers subsidize formal solid waste systems. Their recycling efforts also provide raw materials at low prices to recycling industries. Further, the waste pickers conserve resources, reduce air and water pollution thus contributing to public health and sanitation, and reduce greenhouse gas emissions thus mitigating climate change.

In fact, there is a growing consensus that informal recycling supplements formal solid waste management in varied ways. The high rates of recovery of informal recyclers are a “positive externality which the municipality enjoys without having to pay for it because the environmental gain is a by-product of the economic interests of informal recyclers” (WATSAN 2010: 131).

The GTZ/CWG findings corroborate what Solid Waste Management in the World’s Cities contends: “...recycling rates in many developing countries are already competitive with what is being achieved by modern Western systems” (UN Habitat 2010: 207). In fact, the 20 cities researched recycle 29 per cent of their waste materials on average. Some cities in developing countries such as Bengaluru (28%) and Delhi (34%) in India compare well with developed country cities such as Rotterdam (30%), while Bamako, Mali stands out with a recycling rate of 85 per cent. These rates are achieved largely through the collection, sorting, and recycling efforts of informal waste pickers (UN Habitat 2010).


1 Crivellari, Helena Maria Tarci, Sonia Dias and A.de S. Pena. 2008. “Informação e trabalho: uma leitura sobre os catadores de material reciclável a partir das bases públicas de dados.” In: Kemp, V. H & Crivellari, H. M.T. (org.). Catadores na cena urbana: construção de políticas socioambientais. Belo Horizonte: Autêntica Editora.
2 Table compiled with information from the same study drawn from three sources: (1) GTZ/CWG 2007. Economic Aspects of the Informal Sector in Solid Waste. Data was taken from the Research report prepared by WASTE, Skat, and city partners (internal CWG draft); (2) Agnes, G. 2009. “Integrating the Informal Sector in Solid Waste Management Systems - Basic Aspects and Experiences.” GTZ. Available at www.gtz.de; (3) WATSAN 2010 Fact Sheet 11.