Waste pickers in poorer countries do the recycling work that machines do here. Millions of people earn a living sorting through garbage, collecting items with value and selling them to buyers. It’s dangerous work. They wade through feces, toxic chemicals and medical waste at garbage dumps. They dodge junk slides, fires, rats and garbage trucks. Sometimes they ride on top of garbage trucks. They strain muscles and hurt backs with heavy lifting and repetitive movements. Why would anyone do it? It’s miserable work, but it requires no education or training, the hours are flexible and it provides crucial income where options are few.
We are producing more plastic trash that does not biodegrade than ever before, and it is overwhelming developing countries where waste management systems are flimsy or nonexistent. Recycling is part of the solution, and if it weren’t for waste pickers in these places, there would be no recycling. Waste pickers divert materials from overburdened dumps, they do it for free and they are good at it. At garbage dumps in the Philippines, waste pickers are almost 100% efficient at removing metal and 90% efficient at removing PET bottles.
Recycling nine out of ten plastic bottles sounds good, but it is far from adequate. The report, Stemming the Tide: Land-based strategies for a plastic-free ocean, points out that a waste picker who collects nothing but plastic, PET bottles, earns around $3.50 for a day’s work. A waste picker who only collects plastic bags would only earn $0.50. A mere twenty percent of plastic that waste pickers pick through is worth their time and effort to collect. The remaining eighty percent is not recycled, it does not biodegrade, and in countries without good waste collection and sanitary landfills, it is more likely to leak out into the ocean.
Our landfills are engineered to minimize pollution and maximize trash retention and safety. Dumps are not. The Philippines has 600 open dumps. Open dumps pollute ground water, soil and the atmosphere. There are methane explosions, frequent fires and trash leaks out of them. So much of the garbage brought to these dumps blows away or washes out to sea in heavy rains that the Philippines is the third biggest source of ocean plastic in the world. Open dumps need to be replaced with sanitary landfills. But at modern landfills there is no access to waste that waste pickers need to earn a living, and no place for shanty towns, like those that spring up around dumps, to house the waste pickers. Another option for handling waste is to build more waste-to-energy plants. These would get rid of trash and reduce plastic that leaks into the ocean. They would also cut off access to waste that waste pickers depend on.
Developing countries are dealing with waste and waste picker challenges differently. In Lagos, Nigeria, waste pickers have been told to register with the state and pay levies. Waste pickers make money from trash and the state wants some of it. In other places, most notably Brazil and India, government has helped waste pickers form cooperatives. Being part of a cooperative gives waste pickers access to storage space and equipment that makes sorting recyclables easier, safer and more profitable. Some cooperatives offer child care and health care which make life easier, and uniforms and badges which bring some dignity to the work. Waste pickers are at the bottom of society’s pecking order and are harassed and discriminated against. They get more respect in a uniform.
Big improvements are needed now before we consume and throw out more plastic. Hopefully waste pickers can be part of the solution. There are armies of waste pickers in the developing world who are not only willing to sort through mountains of garbage, they depend on it for a living. Perhaps they can collect recyclables door-to-door before garbage goes to sanitary landfills or waste-to-energy plants. They could possibly be hired to manually sort recyclables in safer material recovery facilities. Maybe plastic that retains more value will be produced so it is worth their effort to collect. Watch for future success stories concerning waste pickers, waste management solutions and cleaner oceans.