Waste pickers: the unsung heroes of our plastic-ridden world

An article by Peter Wang Hjemdahl, rePurpose Global

Words

Peter Wang Hjemdahl

This article was featured in The Beam #10 – Local Heroes of the Energy Transition. Subscribe now to read more on the subject.


 

Between towering piles of waste and the boundless skyline of Mumbai, workers like Bilal return day after day for some of the world’s most vital but stigmatised work. Bilal is a ‘chunawala’, or waste-picker, in Asia’s second-largest landfill, Deonar. Day after day, he sifts through some of the 9,000 metric tonnes of waste shipped there daily. 

Bilal began picking waste for profit when he was only seven years old. Though only 20 years older since then, he has the appearance of a 50-year-old. And it is not clear why. It’s nearly a monthly occurrence that a trash heap collapses on itself when methane released from food waste catches fire. The last time it happened, a waste worker he knew was buried alive, unbeknownst to others for weeks.

At one point during our conversation, he pointed to the big sack of plastic bottles on his back. “You probably threw away one of these bottles after using it for 15 minutes, but this has been my work and my livelihood for the past 20 years.”

Floating trash

A waste system as globalised as ours means trash rarely stays in one place. Most of the time, this means plastic waste from wealthy countries is shipped overseas to developing countries, where vibrant, informal industries recycle the world’s plastic waste for a meager profit. 

In 2016, the United States recycled less than 9% of its plastic waste, and out of that, more than half was shipped to China for recycling. Since China banned all new imports after years of taking in two-thirds of the world’s plastic waste, more waste has been diverted to countries like Thailand, Malaysia and India than ever before. 

Still, even these recent changes follow a pattern that’s dictated our global waste system for years: one in which rich Western countries ship plastic waste to poorer Asian countries who struggle to even handle their own garbage, leaving some of the world’s most marginalised to perform the environmental services that benefit us all. 

Upskilled waste pickers sorting through plastic in Hyderabad, India. Upskilled waste pickers sorting through plastic in Hyderabad, India.

The fate of plastic

Like Bilal, over 50 million chunawalas around the world spend their entire lives dealing with the consequences of our mindless consumption. The Catadores in Brazil; Zabbaleen in Cairo; Bagerezi in South Africa: these communities make up the backbone of the informal recycling sector across the world.

These largely unregulated industries mean workers like Bilal are subjected to labour-intensive days and exploitation by middlemen who purchase high-value recyclables from waste workers. They spend their days seeking out recyclables from streets, waterways and dumpsites, trying to recover waste valuable enough to earn a living.

And they’re quite good at it, too. According to India’s National Chemical Laboratory (NCL), the country has the highest recycling rate for PET plastic (90%), compared to a mere 48.3% in Europe and 31% in the U.S.

It is the unique nature of this industry that poses such a challenge. Despite the inhumane conditions and exploitative tendencies of the industry, these waste workers provide one of our most vital environmental services: removing plastic waste from our environment, repurposing it into something new, and making our oceans and landfills cleaner. But when protecting our environment comes at such a cost, something has to change.

The hidden plight of heroes

Despite the environmental good they perform, these cycles of oppression leave waste pickers as some of the poorest, most socially excluded, discriminated against in developing countries.

In most cities, the jobs of these waste workers aren’t officially legal, leaving them vulnerable to legal ramifications and, more likely, exploitation by law enforcement officials. And despite dangerous conditions, the lack of safety regulations within the job leave waste pickers at the hands of larger and more powerful buyers and sellers in the recycling supply chain.  

“I can’t get enough waste from households to sort through, and even when I do, the recyclers pay me so little that I make barely enough money to keep this place afloat,” lamented Ashok, a waste worker in Mumbai. “At the end of the day, I don’t have enough to feed my family, let alone meet my medical expenses.” 

Though our tonnes of plastic waste is a modern problem, the discrimination faced by these workers’ communities is not. Many waste pickers in India are Dalit women, otherwise called “casteless” or “untouchable”, discriminated against for generations with little opportunity for social mobility. Others might enter the industry because of alcoholism and drug abuse or as rural populations move into cities in search of a livelihood.

"Like Bilal, over 50 million chunawalas around the world spend their entire lives dealing with the consequences of our mindless consumption. "

An impact that lasts

A global issue requires a global solution. We need to create a system that targets the waste we so thoughtlessly produced and empowers waste workers like Bilal at the same time. So where do we start?

The most genuine social and environmental change starts with empowering those who know how to deliver on-the-ground results the best. That means giving waste workers the opportunity to enter formalised roles, have access to healthcare and education through their work, and be part of an industry whose practices seek to protect, not exploit, our environmental heroes. 

rePurpose Global supports formal waste organisations that put a price on the type of plastic that’s normally left behind by waste workers, we can not only intercept the type of plastic that’s polluting our oceans and lakes the most but also promotes organisations that are breaking the status quo of waste picking. 

Across the developing world, the type of plastic that most frequently litter our beaches and oceans tends to have incredibly low value (think plastic bags and chip wrappers). Without a financial incentive for waste workers to collect it, this plastic otherwise damages our marine life or ends up in landfills or incineration. While recycling these materials is difficult, organisations in India are equipped to co-process it, a solution that kicks coal out of energy-intensive processes, like making cement, and removes low-value plastics from the environment. 

By measuring and offsetting your unique plastic footprint using our first-of-its-kind calculator, rePurpose funds organisations that will intercept and recycle an amount of low-value plastic equivalent to your footprint. We work with three vetted organisations in India who hire workers away from the informal waste picking industry and into formalised roles with fair pay, safe conditions and better opportunity. By increasing the capacity of these organisations, we are directly working to establish systems that intercept waste before it turns into a pollutant.

reBalancer Kishan with waste workers at a rePurpose partner facility in Bangalore, India. - © rePurpose Global reBalancer Kishan with waste workers at a rePurpose partner facility in Bangalore, India. - © rePurpose Global

Rome wasn’t built in a day

For too long, climate change discourse has largely ignored the consequence of our mindless consumption on human life. In order to transition from a linear economy to a circular one, we need to fundamentally shift the flow of our materials, a colossal task that requires both brainpower and manpower. For example, while our partner organisations currently employ a network of waste workers to collect, clean, and process waste that is then sent to recycling, these very networks can be used to establish product-recovery models more grounded in circular economy principles, where reusable packaging is collected from consumers, cleaned and subsequently sent back to manufacturers for reuse.

I believe that informal waste workers worldwide, if upskilled, can become key enablers of a future circular economy. Together, we can envision a world where waste is reduced, lives are revived and balance is restored.

 


Peter Wang Hjemdahl, a 2018 graduate from Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, is a Chinese-Norwegian social entrepreneur, and international development strategist. A TEDx speaker and St. Gallen Leader of Tomorrow, he co-founded rePurpose Global, a global community of conscious consumers and businesses going #PlasticNeutral by measuring, reducing, and offsetting their unique environmental footprint.