Ghanaian government leaves waste pickers to fend for themselves amidst COVID-19 pandemic

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Waste pickers collecting recyclables on Kpone Landfill in Accra, Ghana
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Owusu Boampong, Karim Saagbul, Taylor Cass Talbott

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In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, with informal workers worldwide struggling to earn a living, the Ghanaian government began the decommissioning of Accra’s Kpone landfill site, displacing the over 300 workers who pick waste there. The workers’ community space has already been leveled.  

The decommissioning of the landfill appears to be associated with the World Bank’s Greater Accra Resilient and Integrated Development (GARID) project, though both the government and the local World Bank office have denied that the World Bank is helping finance the decommissioning. This may be a strategy to avoid World Bank safeguards for the livelihoods of displaced workers under its Operational Policies and Environmental and Social Standards, which require a do-no-harm approach to economic displacement and the provision of support to restore livelihoods. The legal ramifications of the Kpone Landfill decommissioning remain unclear and WIEGO is engaging with the World Bank and Ghanaian government to work out exactly what is happening. 

It seems that the government has taken advantage of the distraction of COVID-19 to advance the landfill’s closure, without adhering to their commitments to ensure viable livelihood alternatives or compensation for displaced workers. Prior to their displacement, Kpone waste pickers were removing about 800 Tonnes of recyclable material from the landfill annually, and prevented the emission of 24,371 Tonnes of eCO2 in 2019. A substantial environmental contribution.  

Disruption caused by a series of fires that mysteriously broke out on the landfill  in 2019 had already motivated the Kpone Landfill pickers —who are organized into a registered association called the Kpone Landfill Waste Picker Association— to start searching for an alternative livelihood source outside the landfill. Initially, they were interested in scoping wealthy neighbourhoods where they could collect valuable recyclable material. However, capacity development through WIEGO’s Reducing Waste in Coastal Cities project showed the Kpone waste pickers that such an intervention in communities with existing, adequate waste collection might provide them with some income, but would not necessarily improve waste management overall. 

Waste pickers may be more likely to secure a formal role in waste management through a government contract if they can demonstrate that their activities are filling gaps in waste collection. Looking for coastal communities where waste collection services were inadequate and, because of Ghana’s priority to reduce marine waste pollution, the Kpone workers visited nearby beaches where waste was accumulating and traced that waste back to communities. There, they spoke with local leaders to understand why waste was reaching the ocean and held consultations with the community.  These interactions with the community enabled the waste pickers to share their objectives with local residents and leaders and get buy-in for an alternative proposal for waste management there. 

The low value waste, however, would not make it affordable for the Kpone workers to finance waste collection in the community solely from the sale of recyclable materials. They came up with a solution and worked together with local leaders to plan a series of pilot doorstep collection events, which would enable waste pickers to collect data for a proposal to the  government to pay them to provide such services.  

The Kpone waste pickers carried out two pilot doorstep waste collection events in February and August 2020, and the outcomes are encouraging and insightful. Contrary to waste pickers’ initial apprehension that the collection exercise would draw negative attention to their work as dirty, the local residents and community leaders responded positively by cooperating with waste pickers and showing support by providing free water and drinks to waste pickers on the day of the pilot. 

The Kpone workers, several of whom live in the Kpone Coastal Community, sense that the pilot has improved social cohesion, as the stigma and disrespect they normally face is being replaced by a growing recognition and respect for waste pickers. It also strengthened the relationships between community leaders and waste pickers. This was evident when waste pickers, through their association, invited Kpone municipal officers and the assemblyman to the March 1, 2020 celebration of International Waste Pickers’ Day at the Kpone landfill site.

When waste pickers strategize alternative livelihoods, they typically have no choice but to turn towards wealthy neighbourhoods where they can collect valuable recyclable materials, while their own underserved communities languish in inadequate and underfunded waste collection systems. The Kpone workers do not know whether or not they will be able to secure a contract to make doorstep collection in underserved communities profitable for them. Initially, they were hesitant to test out an alternative livelihood that might not provide them with an instant income source. But when the COVID-19 pandemic struck, many waste pickers around the world who rely solely on recyclables collection were prohibited from working, while those who collect mixed waste from households were designated essential service providers. National discourse on the need to effectively collect and manage waste during this health crisis, and recognition of the role of waste pickers in this regard, is now widespread. The Kpone waste pickers now see the value of providing essential mixed waste collection services to underserved communities, even if it means they will need to fight for the right and the funding to do so. 

Ghana’s National Plastic Policy, as well as its National Plastic Action Partnership, speak to the importance of providing more formal waste management opportunities for the informal sector, as well as  improving basic waste collection to reduce marine debris.  It’s time to put those words into action. Rather than prioritizing the displacement of some of the country’s most overlooked workers in the midst of a pandemic, the government and the World Bank should be finding ways to support the Kpone waste pickers to organize themselves, and to secure formal contracts, training, infrastructure, as well as inclusion in long-term participatory planning processes to strategize and implement inclusive waste systems. Informal waste pickers should be recognized, respected and supported by communities, state and non-state organisations, which will curtail their stigmatization and highlight their environmental, economic and social contributions to society. 

The COVID-19 pandemic is disproportionately harming informal workers around the world and has highlighted the need for both better sanitation and more decent work. The inclusion of waste pickers into formal solid waste collection for low income communities not only translates to more affordable and culturally appropriate sanitation services, but it affords underserved communities the dignity of keeping their communities and environment clean and healthy. 

Feature Photo Credit: Dean Saffron

Informal Economy Topic
Occupational group
Informal Economy Theme