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A waste picker is a person who salvages reusable or recyclable materials thrown away by others to sell or for personal consumption. There are millions of waste pickers worldwide, predominantly in developing countries, but increasingly in post-industrial countries as well.
Forms of waste picking have been practiced since antiquity, but modern traditions of waste picking took root during industrialization in the nineteenth century. Over the past half-century, waste picking has expanded vastly in the developing world due to urbanization, toxic colonialism and the global waste trade. Many cities only provide solid waste collection.
Many terms are used to refer to people who salvage recyclables from the waste stream for sale or personal consumption. In English, these terms include rag picker, reclaimer, informal resource recoverer, binner, recycler, poacher, salvager, scavenger, and waste picker; in Spanish cartonero, chatarrero, pepenador, clasificador, minador and reciclador; and in Portuguese catador de materiais recicláveis. A more contemporary term, focusing on the outcome of the professional activity, is "informal sector recycling". However, the word "informal" can be partly misleading, because in practice a continuum between total informality and proper organization in taxed registered formal activities may be encountered.
In 2008, participants of the First World Conference of Waste Pickers chose to use the term "waste picker" for English usage to facilitate global communication. The term “scavenger” is also commonly used, but many waste pickers find it demeaning due to the implied comparison with animals.
"Dumpster diving" generally refers to the practice of anti-consumer and freegan activists who reclaim items such as food and clothes from the waste stream as a form of protest against consumer culture. “Waste picking” generally refers to activity motivated purely by economic need.
There is little reliable data about the number and demographics of waste pickers worldwide. Most academic research on waste pickers is qualitative rather than quantitative. Systematic large-scale data collection is difficult due to the profession’s informal nature, porous borders, seasonally fluctuating workforce, and widely dispersed and mobile worksites. Also, many researchers are reluctant to produce quantitative data out of fear that it might be used to justify crackdowns on waste picking by authorities. Thus, the large-scale estimates that do exist are mainly extrapolations based on very small original research samples. In his book, "The World's Scavengers" (2007), Martin Medina provides a methodological guide to researching waste picking.
In 1988, the World Bank estimated that 1–2% of the global population subsists by waste picking. A 2010 study estimates that there are 1.5 million waste pickers in India alone. Brazil, the country that collects the most robust official statistics on waste pickers, estimates that nearly a quarter million of its citizens engage in waste picking.
Waste picker incomes vary vastly by location, form of work, and gender. Some waste pickers live in extreme poverty, but many others earn multiple times their country’s minimum wage. Recent studies indicate that waste pickers in Belgrade, Serbia, earn approximately US$3 per day, while waste pickers in Cambodia typically earn $1 per day. Official statistics in Brazil indicate that men earn more than women, regardless of age. Approximately two thirds of Brazil’s waste pickers are men overall, but this proportion jumps to 98% in high income waste picker groups (those earning between 3–4 times the minimum wage). No women were found in the highest income groups (those earning over 10 times the minimum wage).
Over the past half century, in-country migration and increased fertility rates have caused the population of cities in the developing world to mushroom. The global population of urban dwellers is expected to double between 1987 and 2015, with 90% of this growth occurring in developing countries. Much of the new population has settled in urban slums and squatter settlements, which have expanded rapidly with no central planning. The United Nations Habitat Report found that nearly one billion people worldwide live in slums, about a third of the world’s urban dwellers.
The rapid urbanization greatly increased the demand for informal waste collecting services, as cities lacked the infrastructure and resources to collect the totality of wastes generated by their inhabitants. Despite spending 30–50% of operation budgets on waste management, developing world cities today collect only 50–80% of refuse generated by inhabitants. Residents and businesses often resort to burning garbage or disposing of it in streets, rivers, vacant lots, and open dumps. This is a source of air, land, and water pollution that threatens human health and the environment. Informal waste collectors help mitigate this harm by collecting recyclable materials by foot or in pushcarts, tricycles, donkey carts, horse carts, and pickup trucks.
On the supply side, urbanization has facilitated the expansion of waste picking by creating a large pool of unemployed and underemployed residents with few alternative means of earning a livelihood. Known as “the one industry that is always hiring,” waste picking provides a cushion for many who lose their jobs during times of war, crisis, and economic downturn in countries that do not have welfare systems. It is also one of the few work opportunities available to people who lack formal education or job experience.
Though documentation exists of rag pickers and scrap metal collectors supplying goods to paper mills and foundries as early as the 17th century, modern waste picking did not flourish in the US and Europe until the 19th century. Just as in the developing world, the combination of industrialization and urbanization led to three trends which favored the blossoming of the informal waste collecting industry: increased generation of urban waste, increased demand for raw materials from industry, and increased numbers of urban dwellers in need of livelihoods. In that era, waste pickers were known as wharf rats, tinkers, rag and bone men, mudlarks, and ragpickers. By the mid-20th century waste picking decreased, as waste management industries were formalized, and welfare states decreased the poor’s reliance on informal recycling.
Beginning in the mid-1990s, however, informal recycling in parts of the United States and Western Europe once again began to mushroom. Two factors fueled the boom: First, the demand for recycling surged due to the increased waste stream, declining room in landfills, new recycling technologies, and the efforts of environmentalists. In 1985 only one roadside recycling program existed in the United States. By 1998, there were 9,000 such programs and 12,000 recyclable drop-off centers. Laws were passed in some states making it illegal not to recycle. Second, changes in the political economy including the loss of manufacturing jobs, cutbacks to government employment, and the roll back of the welfare state increased the ranks of the poor, working poor, and homeless—thus there were more people disposed to wastepick as a full-time profession or supplemental job.
American waste pickers predominantly collect cans, bottles, and cardboard. Many immigrants work as waste pickers because language and documentation barriers limit their opportunities to work elsewhere. Many homeless people also work as waste pickers—some describe it as their only alternative to panhandling. Some recyclers use vans to increase their yield while others work on foot with carts. Anecdotal evidence suggests that most American waste pickers are male, as waste picking is widely considered too dirty and strenuous a job for women. During an ethnography of homeless recyclers in San Francisco, sociologist Teresa Gowan claims to have met hundreds of male waste pickers, but only four female waste pickers.
Waste picking offers significant ecological, economic, and social benefits:
Waste pickers not only generate social benefits, but also potential costs as well. These include:
Traditionally, scholars assumed that informal workers such as waste pickers could not collectively organize due to structural barriers such as lack of legal protection, widely dispersed worksites, porous borders to their profession, a culture of independence and individualism, lack of institutional experience, and lack of money and time to build organizations. Nonetheless, in recent decades waste pickers across Latin America, Asia, and Africa have begun collectively organizing to win a place within formal recycling systems.
Waste pickers use many organizational formats including cooperatives, associations, companies, unions, and micro-enterprises. Despite the differences in format, most of these organizations share three primary purposes. First, by pooling capital, establishing microenterprises, and forming partnerships with business and government, waste collectors increase their selling power. Second, by securing uniforms, safety equipment, and work permits, cooperatives increase workplace dignity and safety. And third, by demanding recognition and compensation from the state for their environmental and economic contributions, cooperatives increase members’ political might. These three functions—political influence, workplace dignity and safety, and increased earnings—are mutually reinforcing, like legs on a stool.
Some waste pickers have created "women’s only" organizations, which seek to combat gender-based discrimination at worksites and in communities. A study in Brazil indicates that women are heavily overrepresented even in coed organizations, making up 56% of the membership despite the fact that they represent only a third of the total waste picking population.
Beginning in the 1990s, waste picker organizations in many parts of the world began uniting into regional, national, and transnational coalitions to increase their political voice and economic leverage. In March 2008, delegates from 30 countries gathered in Bogotá, Colombia, for the first World Conference (and Third Latin American Conference) of Waste Pickers (WIEGO 2008). One of the key issues discussed was the global trend of privatization and concentration of waste management systems. Normally, privatization is thought of as the handover of government functions to the private sector, but in this case, privatization often means the transference of services formerly provided by informal waste collectors to private firms. As waste streams have expanded due to increased consumption, the waste management industry is becoming increasingly lucrative. Governments around the world are granting private companies monopolies on waste management systems, meaning that the cooperatives’ survival hinges on building political and economic alliances needed to win contracts—often an uphill battle given authorities’ distrust of waste collectors and the cooperatives’ lack of capital for modern machinery.
In 1962, the first known Latin American waste picker’s organization, Cooperativa Antioqueña de Recolectores de Subproductos, was created in Medellín, Colombia. The Colombian waste pickers movement did not emerge as a veritable political force until 1990, however, when four cooperatives who had been fighting the closure of a landfill united as the Waste Collector’s Association of Bogotá (ARB). Today the ARB is one of the world’s most active and established waste picker organizations. Throughout the 1990s, powerful waste collectors associations began to form in other Latin American countries as well—most notably in Brazil, Argentina, Chile, and Uruguay.
In 2005, Brazil hosted the first meeting of the Latin American Waste Picker Network (LAWPN)—an organization that now represents waste pickers movements from 16 countries. LAWPN has four key functions. First, it facilitates exchanges of knowledge, technology, and strategies between member organizations through regional conventions, country-to-country delegations, telecommunications, and strategic reports. Second, it organizes transnational solidarity to aid in local battles. For example, when waste pickers in Montevideo, Uruguay, needed support in a local campaign, member organizations across Latin America issued solidarity statements and pressured their national ambassadors in Uruguay to do the same. Third, LAWPN sends leaders from countries with strong waste picker movements to countries with weak movements in order to promote the development of new leadership and organizations. Fourth, LAWPN organizes global waste picker committees to make appeals for support to transnational governance organizations such as the Inter-American Development Bank, the UN Convention on Climate Change, and the International Labour Organization.
In Argentina, The Movement of Excluded Workers (excluded in the sense that their work is not recognized by the government and they are excluded from receiving rights) is the largest waste pickers organization. It is a social organization, independent from political parties, which brings together more than 2,000 cartoneros (waste picker) in Capital Federal and the suburbs, specifically in the neighborhoods of Lanús and Lomas de Zamora. After years of sacrifice and struggle, they managed to improve their working conditions. They have established a more logistical system—they no longer travel by hanging off of trucks, they have obtained a work incentive and uniforms, and lastly they have founded a nursery for 160 children, some of whom worked in the past as cartoneros. However, they still have to advance in designing a social security program that includes all the cartoneros of Buenos Aires. Additionally, they have to raise awareness among residents of the city to separate their trash so that they can collect door to door, without having direct contact with wet materials.
India is home to Asia’s largest waste picker movement. Self-Employed Women's Association of India, a trade union that exclusively organizes women in the informal economy and has membership of over one million, began organizing waste pickers in the late 1970s. SEWA has created nearly ninety waste pickers cooperatives, which members use to gain collective work contracts and access to credit, training, and markets. One of Asia’s largest waste picker associations is The Alliance of Indian Waste Pickers (AIW), a national network of 35 organizations in 22 cities. The AIW facilitates peers support, advocacy and cross-learning among waste pickers, iterant buyers, and support NGOs. Also in India, the All India Kabari Mazdoor Mahasangh (AIKMM) is locked in a battle with the New Delhi Municipal Council, which closed a deal with the Hyderabad-based company, Ramky Energy and Environment Ltd to manage the waste, in effect criminalising the work of more than 100,000 unorganised waste pickers that currently sort about 20% of Delhi's garbage. The EJOLT project made a video on what they call the Delhi waste war. Waste pickers in Thailand have also organized, including the Khon Kaen scavengers.
An Indian waste pickers union known as KKPKP recently carried out a mapping initiative to identify organizations of or that work with waste pickers across the continent—a first step towards the development an Asian network. Several NGOs and trade unions that work with waste pickers, as well as loosely formed groups of waste pickers, were identified in Cambodia, Indonesia, The Philippines, and Thailand.
In Bangladesh, Grambangla Unnayan Committee is working with the waste picker community at Matuail Waste Dumpsite of Dhaka City Corporation. A daycare centre and a non-formal primary school has been established for the child waste pickers where 112 child waste pickers are given early childhood care and education. Women waste pickers of Matuail has formed a Waste Pickers' cooperative.
In Pune (India) there are a worker cooperative of Waste Pickers, called SWaCH. SWaCH is an acronym for Solid Waste Collection Handling that also means clean, in the local language. This initiative empower all members. They all work, they’re not merely shareholders. Among the workers, in most age groups, women constitute a bigger group than men, with a total of 78%. However, men are the majority in the youngest age group. Before joining SWaCH, most members used to work as waste pickers or itinerant waste buyers. There’s also another group that is constituted by former housekeeping and cleaning workers. The predominant group of SWaCH belongs to the Scheduled Caste, although other Backward Castes, as well as the middle castes, are also represented in SWaCH. This initiative is a result of Inclusive cities project that has the objective of integrating Waste Pickers into Municipal Solid Waste Management in Pune (India).
Egypt has of the world’s most well-established and robust informal recycling systems. The labor is done for the most part by the Zabaleen (informal waste collectors), a predominantly Coptic Christian community, which in the 1940s began collecting garbage—work viewed as impure by Egypt’s Muslim majority. In 2003, the Zabaleen’s existence and way of life came under threat when Cairo authorities awarded annual contracts $50 to three multinational garbage disposal companies, pushing the Zabaleen to collectively defend their livelihood.
The South African Waste Picker organization held its first meeting in July 2009, which included 100 waste pickers from 26 landfills across the country. There are no present plans to create an African waste picker’s network, but Shack/Slum Dwellers International organized meetings between waste picker leaders in Kenya, Egypt, and South Africa.
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