Three ways waste pickers can be included in the new circular economy

With an increasing call for a new economic system, the circular economy has gained more attention.

The circular economy aims to address our unsustainable path by decoupling “economic development from finite resource consumption,” according to a 2015 report published by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation.

The transition toward this new economic model brings up a number of technical, financial and institutional challenges, as well as a particular political and ethical obstacle that is in need of greater consideration: how can the livelihoods of informal waste pickers – the 20-million-strong “green army” that has played a crucial role in recycling chains – be integrated appropriately into this new system?

Waste pickers play a vital role in waste collection in cities around the world. In fact, in some developing countries, these informal workers are the only source of waste collection.

In addition, they play a key environmental role by directing valuable materials to the recycling chain, thereby reducing the quantities of waste disposed. And in struggling economies, waste picking is the only work option available, making the occupation an important source of livelihood.

Despite their contributions, waste pickers are treated as nuisances by authorities and with prejudice by segments of the urban population. They are also often ignored in modern solid waste systems, and their livelihoods are threatened as systems modernise.

Existing models of integrated solid waste management systems

In a handful of cities across the world, there are promising inclusive recycling experiences that can act as models for integrating waste pickers.

In Pune, India the cooperative SWaCH is hired by the city to provide doorstep waste collection. In Bogota, Colombia, waste pickers have secured rights to access waste materials by the Constitutional Court, which mandated that waste pickers be paid for their services. The payment scheme is financed through a service fee.

At the same time, national solid waste policies are also important. Brazil has integrated informal waste pickers in its National Solid Waste Policy, approved in 2010. The law recognises the valuable role informal waste pickers play in the recycling chain.

For more cities to adopt such models as they move to more circular economies, here are some key steps:

• We need to strengthen efforts to support organising processes. Donor agencies and NGOs should invest in encouraging the organising of waste pickers, specifically in contexts where they do not exist or are weak.

• The process of integrating waste pickers requires governments and corporations to have an understanding of the complexities of waste picking and a willingness to think outside of the box in order to see waste management beyond conventional approaches.

• For waste pickers’ organisations, there is a need for the professionalisation of services provided by workers through building their capacity.

If these challenges can be addressed, waste pickers have the potential to be an important part of a global circular system – and could change not only the health and state of our planet but also the lives of some of the world’s poorest workers.