WASTE PICKERS: Essential service providers at high risk

waste picker colombia Juan Arredondo

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Photo by Juan Arredondo, Getty Images Reportage

Waste pickers are facing specific risks in this pandemicfrom handling contaminated materials to losing essential daily earnings when governments order work stoppages and tell people to stay home. Their organizations are stepping up to help and to advocate for them.

Waste pickers — also known as reclaimers, catadores in Portuguese and recicladores in Spanish — provide essential sanitation and solid waste management services. They contribute to local economies, to public health and safety, and to environmental sustainability. 

But gathering, collecting and sorting what others throw away puts them at risk in this pandemic. Their work entails high exposure to germs and high proximity to other people — for example, waste pickers handle materials, including medical waste, that may be contaminated with coronavirus.

Yet these workers depend on their essential daily earnings. Stopping work to stay at home could move their households into extreme poverty. Plus, they often live in informal, crowded settlements that lack running water and sanitation. 

For the good of these workers and their communities, governments must make it possible for waste pickers to follow public health guidelines. Income support, access to water/sanitizer and provision of protective gear are crucial right now. So is access to health care and social protections.

Public messaging about the need for proper segregation of household medical waste to keep any contaminated material from being collected with recyclables is crucial to reduce risk of exposure for informal waste pickers (and all waste workers). This is especially important because the virus can live on some materials for days.

SHARE THESE SAFETY TIPS on reducing risk for waste pickers (multiple languages)

To find practical and appropriate interventions, national and local governments must work together on a coordinated response plan that involves waste picker organizations and cooperatives.

Reports examine impacts of COVID-19 on inclusive recycling

We need a daring redesign of inclusive recycling that endorses a platform of decent work, say Sonia Dias, Ricardo Abussafy, Juliana Gonçalves and João Pedro Martins in Impacts of the COVID-19 Pandemic on Inclusive Recycling in Brazil. Totally reshaping our systems of inclusive recycling is important if we take into consideration that waste pickers are an essential part of the economy, providing and sustaining the recycling market in Brazil.

The report – which is summarized in a briefing – looks at the functioning of cooperatives of waste pickers during COVID-19, the impact on the trade of recyclable materials from the perspective of cooperatives of waste pickers during the pandemic, and the health situation of waste pickers. Both the report and the briefing are available in Portuguese.

What waste picker organizations are doing

South Africa

Reclaimers in South Africa have been organizing and negotiating with governments for years to be officially integrated into solid waste management systems (see WIEGO's WISA project). However, while they have been included in the response fund so will receive emergency food parcels, their essential services have not been recognized during the lockdown. Melanie Samson writes in The Maverick

"Government’s failure to recognise that reclaimers are part of essential waste management services is placing additional strain on waste management at a time when we need waste removed as efficiently as possible. It is also having devastating consequences for reclaimers."

Luyanda Hlatshwayo, a waste reclaimer and organizer in Johannesburg, told Kim Harrisberg how life is today for and thousands of reclaimers in a city that failed to recognize their essential work and locked them down: 'How are we meant to eat?': A South African waste picker on life under lockdown (April 7, Thomson Reuters Foundation).

Prior to the imposition of a lockdown, the South African Waste Pickers Association put out information to all waste pickers, urging them to take care of their health, and called on national and local governments and citizens to assist, support, fund and work holistically with waste pickers, and specifically to make it easier for waste pickers to access sanitizers.


Campaign launched April 13 in Mexico City: Thousands of people work daily keeping Mexico City clean, collecting waste from residents and recycling reusable materials. This work is essential to maintaining a healthy city, especially during the COVID-19 crisis. Los Rifados de la Basura Campaign calls on the public and the authorities take steps to help these waste workers and recognize their contributions.


WIEGO's Cuidar Project has developed materials, including this poster, to help waste pickers reduce risks. A technical note, Recommendations for the prevention of Coronavirus (COVID-19) among solid waste workers was also developed. Português

Poster: waste pickers and safety


  • WIEGO, working with public health experts and partners at UnB, AMUR and University of Brasilia, developed guidelines for waste pickers, their organizations and sanitation agencies to help prevent the spread of the disease. A poster has been distributed in how long coronavirus lastsPortuguese as has information on how long the virus can last on different materials. A technical brief is now in translation into multiple languages to inform waste pickers around the world.
  • WIEGO has worked with a partner organization Pimp my Carroça. Talks started early last week to discuss support measures to street waste pickers. Information sharing with organizations across the country is happening through a WhatsApp group and solidarity campaigns are being devised.
  • Cooperative pickers hired by municipalities report difficulty finding sanitizer and masks; there are worries about contamination since people treating the virus at home discard contaminated waste that might come to the cooperative sorting centres, even in places where there is segregation at source (especially where residents do not follow procedures to segregate them).
  • Through the Observatory for Inclusive Recycling, waste pickers organizations have been having virtual meetings to discuss a national coalition of organizations to jointly design measures for all waste pickers, not only cooperative members. 

icon recycler global rec covid-19The Global Alliance of Wastepickers has developed recommendations for waste pickers based on  information from health experts and from waste picker organizations worldwide. Earlier in March, they put out a learn what was happening in the field and gather recommendations. Here are just some of the many responses.


By the end of March, waste pickers were being prevented from working and the Kpone landfill in Accra was closed. Kpone Waste Picker Association leaders recommended that their members stay home as they monitored the situation and risk of contagion. A few, however, stayed at the site to provide security and support services for members, some of whom have kept working in order to earn an income.

Waste picker leaders also purchased soap and hand sanitizer with personal funds and delivered these to members, both on site and at home. They continue to engage in preventing spread of the virus among waste pickers and their families and offering education. They are also engaging other pickers to speak with one voice in calling on the government to remember the informal sector.

In June, media in Accra reported that the Kpone landfill will be closed imminently. Despite government assurances that waste pickers' livelihoods would part of solutions, they were not consulted. JUNE 16 PRESS RELEASE: Ghana waste pickers say closure threatens survival and demand government support

Swach cooperative
In Pune, India, the SWaCH Cooperative has developed posters to help residents help waste pickers. More on their website

The Alliance of Indian Wastepickers has asked India’s Prime Minister for support, including emergency basic income of INR 10,000 per month per household. 

Read: Essential services, expendable lives (People's Archive of Rural India) - “For us, every day is risky. Not only now because of this corona, but [it’s been like this for us] from many generations...”


The national association of recyclers, ANR, offered recommendations to prevent the spread of the coronavirus while continuing the public service provision of recyclables management, within the framework of the Public Waste Management Service in Colombia (Spanish). ANR has asked:

  • that the government does NOT ban recycling and recognizes that waste pickers are on the streets as service providers 
  • inform citizens through user databases and other channels about the urgency of separation at the source, at least the identification of waste bags that may contain coronavirus from those who are sick at home
  • that waste pickers must have access to personal protective equipment and hand washing and soap every hour (the recicladores have installed gallons of water and soap in the vehicles) but they are running out; ARB in Bogota has made a request to the recyclable materials industry to support the organizations in providing this equipment.

Fortunately for waste pickers in Colombia, recycling was declared an essential service and they can continue to work during quarantine, organizations are taking protective measures, even though the risk of overexposure to the virus is present in waste handling.

In Antioquia, collection routes were stopped due to a city mobility restriction act, so waste pickers have experienced a dramatic drop in earnings.

AMELIOR in Montreuil, France, reports the organization had been working with members to help educate them on the risks and prevention strategies. Now, however, the government has applied an order to for everyone to isolate at home. As waste pickers have not been able to work for days and have no money and no food, the organization is making contact with each individual waste picker to learn their situation.


Informal Economy Topic
Occupational group