Waste Worker Inclusion into the formal waste management system recognizes the value these workers bring to the local economy, particularly waste collection and recycling sectors, and supports their health and safety so they can sustain their livelihoods. 

TARGET USERS: Individuals, Businesses, Industry, Government

KEY CONSIDERATIONS: Today, there are an estimated 15 million waste pickers who remove 15 to 20 percent of the world’s metropolitan waste.

    MORE INFORMATION: https://www.vitalocean.org/book-download

    Collections: COLLECTION


    In many developing and emerging economies, the informal and formal waste sectors are not effectively integrated, leading to inefficient collection and recycling processes, and a lack of transparency on waste supply chains. The outcome is less waste collected, less waste processed, and more waste leaked into nature.

    Informal waste pickers typically recover only high-value plastics, like those in milk jugs or water bottles. However, because soft plastic like chip bags and chocolate wrappers do not have a financial value, these networks do not have an incentive to intercept it from the environment. It is said that 26% of plastic is currently profitable to recycle. The remaining Low-value plastic (LVP) is indiscriminately dumped, often in nature.



    The term “waste picker” refers to a person who salvages reusable or recyclable materials that have been thrown away by others and sells this material for profit. Some also reuse the materials themselves. Waste pickers have existed for centuries and play an important role for both the environment and local economies. In fact, waste pickers are the world’s oldest form of waste management. Today, there are an estimated 15 million waste pickers who remove 15 to 20 percent of the world’s metropolitan waste. In many cases, their work is informal, often dangerous, and wholly unrecognized by both the community and government. But in recent years (since 2007 in Brazil, 2000 in India), local governments and concerned organizations have sought ways to incorporate waste pickers into the formal waste collection system in order to recognize their work and guarantee their livelihood.  

    The inclusion of waste pickers in waste management systems—and a recognition of their importance—is crucial not only for their own health and livelihoods, but for the economies of municipalities as well. In cities where they operate, waste pickers may collect up to 25 percent of the municipality’s waste. This saves considerable collection expenses, including transportation to a landfill, vehicle maintenance, salaries, and more. In 2014, Jain University, Hasiru Dala, and the Solid Waste Management Round Table (SWMRT) estimated that in Bengaluru, India, the city’s 15,000 waste pickers saved the municipality nearly USD $12 million annually by collecting over 1,000 tons of the city’s 4,500 tons of daily waste. This system can be so effective that in countries like India over 90 percent of PET bottles sold are collected, proving that the recycling of certain high-value materials is not only viable, but provides much needed income for waste pickers.

    It is important to include waste pickers into the formal waste system in ways that recognize their value and empowers them—rather than pushing them out as new programs are launched.

    Waste pickers can attain a healthier, safer, and more secure future. But they can rarely do this on their own. True empowerment requires a systematic change in their rights, as well as recognition of heir valuable contributions to society. Organizations that represent them need to fight on their behalf, while governments need to change the legal standing of waste pickers and heighten their economic opportunities. India and Brazil, arguably the two countries that have best supported waste pickers, both followed similar steps that moved waste pickers from subsistence living to greater opportunity. These four steps are listed below.

    1. Solidarity among waste pickers
    2. Mobilization around recognition and economic opportunity
    3. Legitimacy through ID Cards and right to work
    4. Entrepreneurship opportunities

    Governments share many of the same priorities, including a desire to increase recycling levels and reduce the amount of waste going to landfills. By utilizing waste pickers in formal waste collection, governments can move them from dangerous and unhealthy work in landfills to more dignified work at the front of the waste-value chain. The cost is lower than municipal-led or private hauler systems and often more effective because waste pickers can travel on foot and reach otherwise inaccessible areas.

    For more information on Waste Worker Inclusion, please see the source of this information - “Leave No Trace: Vital lessons from pioneering organizations on the frontline of waste and ocean plastic”: https://www.vitalocean.org/book-download



    There are a number of local programs and NGOs working to support waste workers’ rights, such as the Alliance of Indian Waste pickers, State Secretariat of Women Collectors of Recyclable Materials of São Paulo, National Movement of Waste Pickers in Brazil, among other local initiatives that support waste worker inclusion.



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