The Scorned but Valuable Work of Waste Pickers

Indian rag pickers search for usable material at a Dhapa dump site, the waste zone in eastern Kolkata Photograph by Piyal Adhikary/Corbis

You don’t rummage through piles of garbage looking for recyclable items if you have other options in life. Waste pickers are pretty close to the bottom of the career prestige ladder. But they do provide a useful service, simultaneously reducing the volume of waste that goes into landfills and providing useful raw materials like glass, plastic, and paper to manufacturers.

A study released last week at the World Urban Forum in Medellín, Colombia, based on interviews with hundreds of waste pickers, street vendors, and home workers in Africa, Asia, and Latin America, finds that all three types of workers “could make greater contributions if local policies and practices supported, rather than hindered, their work.” The study was performed by Women in Informal Employment: Globalizing and Organizing (Wiego) and its partners in what’s known as the Inclusive Cities project.

Waste pickers are a prime example. Local governments often seem ambivalent about whether to support them or shut them down—for example, by trucking away waste and burying or burning it before anyone has a chance to pick through it.

The 763 waste pickers surveyed in the study live in Belo Horizonte, Brazil; Bogotá, Colombia; Durban, South Africa; Nakuru, Kenya; and Pune, India. In Bogotá and Durban, more than 84 percent said poor treatment by the local authority is a problem.

Belo Horizonte (“beautiful horizon”), which is about 250 miles north of Rio de Janeiro, is a more complicated case. Wiego says the municipality has long had a formal partnership with waste pickers’ organizations, and 63 percent of waste pickers surveyed there said they’ve experienced support from the city (PDF), “compared to just 26 percent or less in the other cities.”

Lately, though, the waste pickers have clashed with Belo Horizonte over its plans for a big incineration project, which they complain would deprive them of the raw materials they need—while simultaneously causing more pollution.

To get the municipal perspective, I contacted ICLEI, which represents cities of all sizes that are focused on sustainability. The organization held its 2012 World Congress in Belo Horizonte. In an e-mail response, Secretary General Gino Van Begin said waste-picking and incineration go hand in hand: “Waste pickers for instance are necessary especially in segregating waste—finding out what can be reused, and with the leftovers going to the incineration plant.”

But Sonia Dias, a sociologist and self-described garbologist who represents Wiego in Belo Horizonte, disagrees. She says incinerators don’t operate well if too many combustibles are removed from the waste stream, so cities with incinerators discourage waste pickers.

I can’t say I got to the bottom of this dispute. The one thing that’s clear is that waste pickers have a hard life. Consider two quotes from the survey. One is from Bogotá: “We clean the city—so the sewers don’t clog, so that there are no rats, [or] mosquitoes … so we help prevent diseases.” And from Pune: “The city gets healthier, but we get sicker. Big needles, glass, rose thorns, all those things injure us. We fall sick.”

    Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.