Waste Pickers

Una mujer separa residuos en un relleno sanitario en Accra, Ghana

Waste pickers and COVID-19

Environmental & Economic Contributors

Millions of people worldwide make a living collecting, sorting, recycling, and selling materials that someone else has thrown away.

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

Waste pickers contribute to local economies, to public health and safety, and to environmental sustainability. While recognition for their contributions is growing in some places, they often face low social status, deplorable living and working conditions, and get little support from local governments. Increasingly, they face challenges due to competition for lucrative waste from powerful corporate entities.

Terms and Categories

The term “waste picker” was adopted at the First World Conference of Waste Pickers in Bogota, Colombia, in 2008 to facilitate global networking – and to supplant derogatory terms like “scavenger”. Preferred terms vary, however, by place. For example, in South Africa "reclaimers" and "bagerezi" are used. In the United States, "canners" is often used. Other languages have their own preferred terms: catadores in Portuguese, recicladores in Spanish.

Waste pickers collect household or commercial/industrial waste. They may collect from private waste bins or dumpsters, along streets and waterways or on dumps and landfills. Some rummage in search of necessities; others collect and sell recyclables to middlemen or businesses. Some work in recycling warehouses or recycling plants owned by their cooperatives or associations. (See basic categories of waste pickers for more.)

What waste pickers have in common is that this work is their livelihood and often helps support their families.

Economic Benefits

Waste pickers offer a range of economic benefits.

Waste picking provides crucial income for people and households. In Belo Horizonte, Brazil, waste pickers said their cooperatives create opportunities for people, sometimes “taking them off the streets.”

Waste pickers provide reusable materials to other enterprises. In Pune, India, waste pickers collect organic matter for composting and biogas. In Belo Horizonte, Brazil and Nakuru, Kenya, material is sold to artists and groups to work with.

Others profit from waste pickers’ work. Many waste pickers sell to buyers, who then sell the material for a profit. Waste pickers also pay private carriers and transport drivers.

For more, see the Informal Economy Monitoring Study (IEMS), coordinated by WIEGO in 2012, which involved quantitative/qualitative research on 763 waste pickers in five cities in Africa, Asia and Latin America.

Environmental Contributions

Waste pickers worldwide contribute significantly in preventing marine waste pollution by recycling and reusing materials that would otherwise end up in the environment. When better organized and formally integrated into recycling systems, waste pickers can increase their contribution to environmental protection. WIEGO’s Reducing Waste for Coastal Cities Project is building the capacity of workers’ organizations to improve their contribution in curbing ocean waste pollution.

By gathering garbage from public spaces, waste pickers contribute to cleanliness and help beautify the city. Waste pickers divert a significant quantity of materials from the waste stream. A recent report estimates that waste pickers collect 58 per cent of plastics, thus contributing significantly to supplying the value chain and avoiding plastic pollution. A 2007 study found that waste pickers recovered approximately 20 per cent of all waste material in three of six cities studied. The study found that more than 80,000 people were responsible for recycling about 3 million tons per year of waste across the six cities.

Recycling is one of the cheapest, fastest ways to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Recycling reduces emissions 25 times more than incineration does (Tellus Institute 2008) — yet privatized incineration increasingly displaces waste pickers around the world.

Reuse and recycling of materials decreases the amount of virgin materials needed for production, conserving natural resources and energy while reducing air and water pollution.

For a full discussion, see Urban Informal Workers & The Green Economy.

Municipal Benefits

In many countries, waste pickers supply the only form of solid waste collection at little or no cost to municipalities.

Public health and sanitation improves when waste pickers remove waste from urban areas not served by municipal garbage collection.

Municipal expenses are reduced through subsidization of solid waste management systems. According to the UN publication Solid Waste Management in the World’s Cities, waste pickers perform 50-100 per cent of ongoing waste collection in most cities in developing countries.

Waste pickers divert tons of material from dumpsites/landfills

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Waste pickers at the Boitshepi landfill in South Africa
Waste pickers at the Boitshepi landfill in South Africa. Credit: Jonathan Torgovnik/Getty Images Reportage

Statistical Snapshot

Reliable statistical data on waste pickers are difficult to produce. Employment data are collected through household surveys but many waste pickers live on the street or on dump sites and therefore would not be included in the survey sample. In addition, waste pickers are mobile and their work often varies seasonally. Further, waste pickers may avoid researchers, fearing information will be passed on to public officials.

Activism by NGOs and worker cooperatives in Brazil on behalf of waste pickers led to special efforts on the part of the national statistical authorities to measure waste pickers. Around 229,000 waste pickers were identified in the 2006 National Labour Force Survey (PNAD) (Dias 2010). Of these, 67 per cent were men and 33 per cent were women.These waste pickers were responsible for the high rates of recycling in Brazil – nearly 92 per cent of aluminium and 80 per cent of cardboard were recycled in 2008.

Read more about Brazil's official statistics on waste pickers.

The following statistical reports with data on waste pickers found that they represent less than 1 per cent of the urban workforce:

These small percentages, however, represent large numbers of people. In India for example, 2018-19 data show 2.2 million working as waste pickers. However with the challenges of gathering data on waste pickers, the number is probably low.

Characteristics of Waste Pickers

The majority of waste pickers have generally low levels of formal education. In many places the work is done by primarily disadvantaged groups. For example in Pune, India, waste picking remains confined to the Scheduled Castes. And in many cities, migrants with few other employment options had taken up this work.In Ghana for example, the few women who were waste pickers had no education (WIEGO Statistical Brief no.21).

See the IEMS study findings for more: The Urban Informal Workforce: Waste Pickers/Recyclers (español)

Driving Forces & Working Conditions

Waste picking is often a family enterprise. It offers flexible working hours – especially important for women – and a high level of adaptability. It is easily learned and requires no education and little training. And for many of the poorest people around the globe, it is one of the only livelihood options.

However, waste workers are often subject to social stigma, face poor working conditions, and are frequently harassed.

Access to Waste

Access to waste and privatization of waste are key issues that impact waste pickers’ livelihoods. At the First Global Strategic Workshop of Waste Pickers in Pune, India in 2012, waste picker representatives from 22 countries identified privatization of access to waste (and the related move of final waste disposal systems toward incineration and waste-to-energy schemes) as the biggest common threat to waste pickers’ livelihoods.

Economic Realities

Waste pickers’ earnings vary widely between regions, by the type of work they do, and for women and men.

In Belo Horizonte, Brazil, where waste pickers are recognized and supported by governments and organized into strong cooperatives, waste pickers appear to have higher incomes than other workers in informal employment. By contrast, waste pickers in Nakuru, Kenya subsist on meagre returns. The average turnover of respondents in Nakuru – before accounting for expenses such as storage or transportation – was under US $2/day.

Men consistently earn more than women waste pickers. A gender analysis of official data in Brazil’s RAIS database also concluded that men in waste picking earn much more than women (Crivellari et al. 2008).

Waste pickers’ earnings are impacted by market-driven prices for recyclables.

Waste pickers require adequate space for sorting and storing collected materials. Without storage, material cannot be held until it can fetch a higher price; unsheltered materials can be degraded or ruined by weather.

Macroeconomic trends like inflation and recession impact waste pickers. The rising cost of living and the increasing numbers of waste pickers, including migrants, affects waste pickers.

Waste pickers are facing specific risks in the COVID-19 pandemic. From handling contaminated materials to losing essential daily earnings when governments order work stoppages and tell people to stay home. Read more here on how the pandemic has affected waste pickers.

The global recession hit waste pickers hard. Research conducted by WIEGO and its Inclusive Cities partners found the economic crisis caused a marked drop in the demand for and price of waste. At the same time, newly unemployed people entered the profession. For more, see Informal Economy/Links with Economic Crisis.

Within value chains, waste pickers are in a disadvantaged position. They have difficulty negotiating better prices from buyers, and maintain exploitative or dependent relations with buyers.

Waste pickers provide recyclable materials to formal enterprises.

For more background on these economic realities for waste pickers see The Urban Informal Workforce: Waste Pickers/Recyclers

Social Realities

Social stigmatization compounds waste pickers’ difficulties – However, waste pickers’ organizations help counteract social and legal exclusion (see Organization & Voice, below).

Harassment is a significant problem. Treated as nuisances by authorities and with disdain by the public, waste pickers are usually ignored within public policy processes and may even be arrested or physically assaulted. They may face exploitation and intimidation by middlemen, which can affect their earnings.

Gender & Waste

Women engaged in this occupation typically earn less than men and often face other forms of inequality. In 2012, the Latin American Waste Pickers’ Network (Red Lacre), the National Movement of Waste Pickers in Brazil (MNCR), and WIEGO created a project about gender in the context of waste picking or informal recycling. Access resources and tools that resulted from the project.

Occupational Health & Safety

Handling waste poses many health risks. Informal waste pickers are exposed to contaminants and hazardous materials, from fecal matter and medical waste to toxic fumes and chemicals. Those who work at open dumps face risks caused by trucks, fires and surface slides. Some must take collected waste home to sort or store, introducing dangers to the home. A lack of worker protection and poor access to health care aggravate these risks. Open dumps pose environmental and health concerns, but any dump closure must include a comprehensive and articulated approach that addresses the impacts on waste pickers.

Waste pickers also endure ergonomic hazards such as heavy lifting and repetitive motion, and may experience back and lower extremity pain. In the Metropolitan Region of Belo Horizonte city, Brazil, WIEGO's Cuidar Project is shedding light on the health risks that waste pickers face. The aim is to build knowledge and capacity on key preventive measures that address ergonomic problems faced by workers.

"God is My Alarm Clock": A Brazilian Wastepicker's Story. Read about the life of a Brazilian waste picker: Dona Maria Brás was a tireless force in helping Brazilian waste pickers overcome persecution and gain respect and security as members of cooperative ventures.

For waste pickers, harassment is a part of daily life. In-depth interviews with waste pickers, observation of their work and visits to a dozen dumpsites in six Latin American countries – conducted as part of WIEGO’s Waste Pickers and Human Rights project and summarized in this report (Spanish only) – painted a picture of working conditions so poor that they amounted to human rights violations. A toolkit (Spanish only) has been developed, through which waste pickers learn to understand their rights and how to stand up for those. Read more on this blog.

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A waste picker in Belo Horizonte, Brazil
A waste picker in Belo Horizonte, Brazil. Credit: Leslie Tuttle

Policies & Programmes

Whether and how informal waste pickers are included in municipal waste systems varies greatly. Worldwide, most waste pickers are not recognized for their contributions and do not have access to state-sponsored social protection.

Where waste pickers are organized, this is changing. Membership-based organizations and other progressive entities are helping cities recognize the vital role waste pickers play, and they are encouraging authorities to design more progressive policies. Cities like Belo Horizonte in Brazil, Lima in Peru, and Pune in India are developing policies that integrate waste pickers into waste collection and recycling.

An exclusionary policy environment harms livelihoods. In Bogotá and Durban, for example, regulations and by-laws regarding waste were a problem in 2012.

A supportive policy environment positively impacts waste pickers’ livelihoods. The Belo Horizonte municipality partners with waste pickers and their organizations, providing infrastructure, subsidies and worker education. 

Replacement of repressive policies with inclusive policies focused on legal recognition, remuneration for services, social recognition and the strengthening of waste picker organizations is crucial. By 2018, 24 municipalities in Colombia had agreed inclusive waste picker remuneration practices, and in 2020 the South African government published a Waste Picker Integration Guideline that had been negotiated between stakeholders, including representatives of waste picker organizations. For other examples of regulatory initiatives with positive outcomes, see Waste Pickers and the Law.


Organization & Voice

Waste pickers are increasingly motivated to organize and fight for recognition. In an increasing number of cities, waste pickers have formed collectives to advocate for their inclusion in municipal planning around solid waste management.

In some countries, such as Brazil, Colombia and India, waste pickers now have the right to sell to or bid on contracts with the municipality.

Through the Global Alliance of Waste Pickers, waste pickers have taken the world stage at international climate change conferences and events to highlight the need for global policies that help, not hinder, their work. Learn about Waste Pickers’ at UN Climate Change Negotiations.

In 2013, waste pickers’ organizations played an active role at the International Labour Conference (ILC) 2013, where “Sustainable Development, Green Jobs and Decent Work” was the theme. Read the delegation’s report.

A global database called Waste pickers Around the World has been established with the help of WIEGO and the Global Alliance of Waste Pickers.

For more, see Waste Pickers Organizing.


WIEGO Specialists

  • Sonia Dias
    Sector Specialist, Waste Pickers
  • Lucía Fernández
    Sector Advisor, Waste Pickers
  • Federico Parra
    Regional Coordinator, Waste Pickers Latin America
  • Amira el Halabi
    Africa Waste Pickers Coordinator
  • Taylor Cas Talbott
    Project Officer, Reducing Waste in Coastal Cities

Related Reading

Environmental and economic contributions

Occupational Health & Safety

Eye Witness: WIEGO’s Brazilian Waste Expert Dispatches from India

Fernández, Lucía. 2012. Paisajes-basura: Dinámicas y Externalidades Territoriales del Reciclaje en Montevideo, Uruguay (Waste-scapes: Recycling Dynamics and Spacial Externalities in Montevideo, Uruguay). WIEGO Working Paper (Urban Policies) No. 25. (español)

Policies and programmes

Other


Top photo: A woman who sorts waste at a landfill in Accra, Ghana. Credit: Dean Saffon.
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