Waste pickers in Medellín, Popayán, and Montería receive their first payment as recycling public service providers

Hero Image
Published Date
Federico Parra

Technical team and leaders of ARRECICLAR in Medellín

Technical team and leaders of ARRECICLAR in Medellín. Photo: Arreciclar


Members of four waste picker organizations in Medellín, Popayán, and Montería — RECIMED (Cooperativa Multiactiva de recicladores de Medellín), ARRECICLAR (Asociación de Recicladores de Antioquia) in Medellín; AREMARPO (Asociación de Recolectores de Materiales Reciclables de Popayán) in Popayán; and COOPRESCORDOBA (Cooperativa de Recicladores de Córdoba) en Montería*  — have received their first payment for waste collection, transportation, and recycling services. From now on, the more than 850 men and women waste picker members of these organizations will receive a monthly payment for the services they provide.

Up to now, only members of waste picker organizations in Bogotá had been recognized and remunerated for waste collection, transport, and public recycling services — an outcome of the more than two decades-long struggle by organized waste pickers, spearheaded by the Asociación de Recicladores de Bogotá (ARB), and the Asociación Nacional de Recicladores (ANR).

This feat was achieved through the legal claims ARB filed to demand their rights. These claims resulted in seven rulings by the Constitutional Court of Colombia in favour of waste pickers. 

For more information on the history of the struggle of waste pickers in Bogotá read: ARB: Fighting for An Inclusive Model for Recycling in Bogota.

The Constitutional Court’s pronouncements and orders command municipalities and national authorities to create the necessary guarantees for waste pickers’ safe and secure transition to formalization. Among them, the most important are as follows: 

1) That all waste pickers (organized or not organized) have access to recyclable materials during the transition to formalization (regardless of the time required). 

2) That real programmes of technical, organizational and administrative support be created to comply with the requirements waste pickers need to fulfill. 

3) That waste pickers remain able to continue their work in this occupation and move upwards in the value chain. 

These Court rulings have also been reflected in waste management public policies. In the past, those policies gave priority to the collection, transport and controlled burial of waste in the hands of large corporations. Now, in theory, waste management policies must give priority to the recycling component of waste management and integrate, recognize, and remunerate waste pickers.

Formalizing recognition and remuneration of waste pickers as public service providers 

The inclusion of recycling into the new waste management policy marks the gradual process of “formalizing” the role of waste pickers as public service providers; the definition of the responsibilities of public authorities in the process; and the establishment of a mechanism to remunerate recycling as a public service. Existing national standards also require that companies involved in garbage collection comply with their obligations to waste pickers by, among others, invoicing for the quantity of recuperated recyclable materials by waste picker organizations and collecting the corresponding municipal fee to distribute it to waste picker organizations. 

Regrettably, the new standard also has grey areas that leave room for private waste collection and recycling companies (that is, “non-waste pickers”) to provide recycling services. The standard also imposes very strict requirements for waste picker organizations to become public service providers and includes regulations that fail to take into account the realities of waste pickers and their value chain.

Collection centre operated by ARRECICLAR in Medellín

Collection centre operated by ARRECICLAR in Medellín. Photo: Arreciclar.


Despite the loopholes of the national policy on waste management, RECIMED and ARRECICLAR in Medellín, AREMARPO in Popayán, and COOPRESCORDOBA in Montería have successfully met the requirements and completed the processes to be recognized as public service providers and to be compensated for their work. With great commitment and a significant effort, these organizations have made internal changes and developed the necessary skills to respond to the challenges of formal recognition and integration as public service providers. 

These organizations have also ensured that public authorities and other actors are respectful of the rights and interests of waste pickers that were recognized by the Constitutional Court. Most significantly, they have persuaded municipal authorities in Popayán, Medellín, and Montería to accept, and comply with, the direction provided by the Constitutional Court! The support and assistance of ANR played a vital role in this success, along with that of many other groups, including WIEGO and Fundación Familia.**

Promotional material for waste pickers

OUR WORK IS A SERVICE. Promotional material recognizing waste pickers as public service providers. Produced by ANR and WIEGO.

Popayán: The process for determining payment

In order to be paid for their public services, waste picker organizations must comply with a series of administrative and technical requirements. They must also develop operational practices in order to report on their work in the official online platforms for the provision of public services, including the input of information on the number of tons of materials recovered as part of an invoicing system. 

This information will later be consolidated and verified. Private waste collection companies will then be responsible for collecting the corresponding waste fees and transferring them to waste picker organizations. 

In Popayán, an Account Reconciliation Committee has been established to manage the process of remunerating AREMARPO for collection and transport services. The committee reviews the quantities of waste and recyclable materials collected by waste collection companies and waste picker organizations, respectively, and determines how much will be charged to residents for these services. When the fees from residents are collected, the waste companies must then divide them according to what each service provider invoiced,  and transfer the corresponding amount for collection, transport and recycling public services to waste picker organizations. 

The photo below was taken at the first meeting of the Account Reconciliation Committee in Popayán, which was hosted by the municipality and the departments involved in waste management. The meeting was also attended by representatives of AREMARPO, the legal representative of ANR, support groups, national authorities, and delegates from Popayán´s waste management company.

Popayán´s Account Reconciliation Committee

Popayán´s Account Reconciliation Committee. Photo: Municipality of Popayán.

Moving forward

The experience in Popayán, Medellín, and Montería shows that it is possible today in Colombia to make significant progress toward a public waste management system that is socially and environmentally sustainable if it is based on a recycling system that recognizes and remunerates waste pickers.

However, it must be said that the process is not yet finished. Many organizations that are members or allies of ANR are working to ensure recognition and remuneration is achieved in other municipalities in the short term. At the same time, ANR is leading the campaign to ensure that the national standards for the formalization of waste pickers properly reflect the rulings of the Constitutional Court.

Launching of selective collection routes and award of certificates

Launching of selective collection routes and award of certificates of occupational skills to waste pickers from AREMARPO.


To achieve these goals, it is necessary that:

1) Municipalities and authorities in general fulfill their responsibility to provide guarantees and support to waste pickers as essential partners in solid waste management; 

2) Waste pickers and their organizations assume that the provision of this public service is a possible and desirable future;

3) Waste collection companies fulfill their role in supporting waste picker organizations; and 

4) The general population adopts or consolidates practices of waste separation at source and that they make such waste available to the collection and transport services provided by waste pickers and their organizations.


First photo: Launching of AREMARPO selective collection routes for recyclable materials in Popayán. Photo: WIEGO.

Related blogs:

Inclusive recycling with waste pickers in Medellín, by Federico Parra and Olga Abizaid.


* Payment was also successfully negotiated in the municipality of Diutama.

** AREMARPO from Popayán also received significant support from the Alliance for Inclusive Recycling through the project “Towards recognition and institutionalization of inclusive recycling in Colombia (“Hacia el reconocimiento y la institucionalización del reciclaje inclusivo en Colombia”), implemented by CEMPRE Colombia.


Lea este artículo en español aquí.

Informal Economy Topic
Occupational group