Although they have been working towards sustainability before it was trending, waste pickers remain some of the most widely excluded people on the planet.
The result of decades of marginalising by societies is revealed very plainly during this global pandemic. But before talking about COVID-19, lets talk about them.
Who are waste pickers?
Waste pickers are informal workers who base their livelihoods on collecting, sorting, recycling, and selling materials thrown away by others. They often work with industrial and mixed household waste including food waste, at the bottom of value chains. Otherwise, these products would go to dumps, landfills, or incineration plants.
Their activity generates environmental and social gains due to the increase in sustainable waste management and adding support to low-income families. These workers are also known as reclaimers, recyclers, salvagers, and waste collectors in English; cartoneros, clasificadores, minadores, and recicladores in Spanish; catadores de materiais recicláveis in Brazilian Portuguese; and zabaleen in Egyptian Arabic.
Waste picking came from filling the waste management gap. In many countries, waste services are rarely consistent and sometimes non-existent, enabling informal measures. They are connected to the Global South countries, albeit existing in the Global North. In any case, they can also deal with the Norths waste as international waste dumping is still a reality.
The informal economy is often unregulated, unprotected, and unsecured. This lack of social security alongside high exposure to risks coming from precarious working conditions makes waste pickers very vulnerable. Several studies suggest that the long-term effects of occupational exposure to waste pose a severe risk to human health, such as biological and chemical hazards and emotional distress.
Time and hardships lead to organisation and currently, there are many cases of waste picker organisation, activism, and trade unionism. The most well-known cases are the ASMARE Cooperative, in Brazil; Self-Employed Womens Association (SEWA) Organising Through Union and Co-operative, in India; the Ikageng Ditamating Recycling and Waste Management Group, in South Africa; and the Recyclers Association of Bogota (ARB), in Colombia. These organisations resulted in many networks and federations, such as the SWACHH National Alliance of Waste Pickers in India; and the National Recyclers Movement (MNCR) in Brazil.
Waste pickers, governments and COVID-19
The strong presence and organisation of waste pickers in the Global South should be a sign of their importance and cause for recognition. However, the provision of such a service has not translated into support. Though there has been an improvement, they remain extremely marginalised. Waste pickers often have critical living and working conditions, facing health and safety issues, and receiving minimal assistance from local governments and industries.
The COVID-19 outbreak lays bare this web of neglect. Waste picking is still a low-paying job without a home office alternative. Due to the nature of this activity, workers are very exposed, and often lack protective equipment such as gloves, masks, and glasses. As it is a known fact that coronavirus can survive for days on some materials, especially hard plastics and steel, which are common in household products and waste. The fact that there has been an increase of people being treated at home, generating medical waste into the bin adds to waste pickers exposure.
The set of COVID-19 recommendations is proving to be complicated. The directives are centred on good hygiene and social distancing, both effective but hard to follow in a precarious waste management context. Waste pickers and informal workers in general often face the question of whether to protect themselves from coronavirus by refraining from work and possibly face starvation, or work and be extremely exposed to the virus.
And yet there is some good news. Waste pickers organisations worldwide are taking action. The MNCR in Brazil, the Alianza Separa group in Colombia, the South African Association of reclaimers in South Africa, and the SWaCH, in India are some of the organisations that launched campaigns to raise funds seeking to provide information, food, and hygiene kits. Overall, these initiatives showed how much waste pickers organisations are crucial, particularly in trying times.
The interventions by the networks are necessary; however, the main commitments should come from governments. It should be a high priority for authorities to partner with local industries to provide emergency relief to deal with this epidemic. For instance, the creation of cash grants is essential as they allow informal workers to respect lockdown measures, offering social and economic aid for families typically supported by waste picking. Interventions should also eliminate the cost of testing and treatment for coronavirus.
COVID-19 is putting an unforgiving spotlight on waste inequities. But it is also offering us a moment in time to notice them. Waste pickers increase recycling rates, produce environmental gains, and benefit communities worldwide. For the future, they should be recognised as the environmental agents that they are and receive support from governments and industries. A safe and sustainable future requires us to place social and environmental matters at the frontline of our priorities. Waste pickers have already shown that it is possible.