"Waste pickers" - informal sector in solid waste management, examples from Lebanon, South Africa, India...

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  • saluamoussawel
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  • A solid-waste and wastewater master's graduate. I have a passion for all things environment, specifically waste, and love to network and hear about existing projects and initiatives. I am German and Lebanese and have been an active advocate of best waste management practices in Lebanon for several years now.
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"Waste pickers" - informal sector in solid waste management, examples from Lebanon, South Africa, ...

Hello everyone, 

I am Salua, a solid waste and wastewater graduate, and am very happy to contribute to  this discussion (in this new thread). 

I would like to share my experience with the informal sector in Lebanon. A few years back, on a personal initiative, I started searching for and approaching waste pickers I found in the city of Tripoli (an hour north of Beirut). I tried asking them a lot of questions about why and how they do what they do and what their challenges are. I could summarize it to the following: 
  • They go around waste containers and pick clean/non-contaminated recyclables like cardboard and plastic like bottles and jugs (PET, HDPE, etc.)
  • They sold the recyclables to junkyards nearby
  • From a day's worth of collecting, the profit is often only around the equivalent of a dollar +/-
  • Most used old motorcycles or bikes and have a large handcrafted rolling bins hanging to the back of it
  • Each waste picker has their own route and has a kind of agreement to remain on the route as to avoid competition/conflict
  • Often they do not have a phone (see below why I asked for that)
  • They often lived in the "outskirts"  of the center of Tripoli in the conflict areas among the most vulnerable communities
  • Often times the waste pickers were of Syrian origin and immigrated to Lebanon
  • Most often they had families to provide for
  • What they do is technically illegal so it was difficult at first to ensure them that I can be trusted and that I do not intend to report them
  • They worked most often in the night
As I was often part of organizing beach clean ups and was heavily involved in raising awareness (including through Lebanese Red Cross related initiatives), I thought it would be great to stay in contact with the waste pickers I met per phone, and to basically point them to possible sources of clean and valuable recyclables. I did eventually do so a couple of times. I visited countless junkyards and was fascinated by how well they do their recycling. The machines are outdated but they still work and some were creatively fashioned into functioning equipment. The business does not make too much profit, but I saw great potential in it if we make an effort to boost it. 

For the health and safety of the waste pickers however, as many have mentioned in the discussion, a union is the way to go. One member mentioned the Brazilian success stories and indeed many regions have collected themselves into unions and ensured proper work regulations. In a country like Lebanon, small and infiltrated by corruption, it is often difficult to navigate through layers of permissions and political contexts one might not be aware of. This is why this topic can be very complicated to tackle as social, financial  and political aspects will bound to play the determining roles. 

The most I could do at that point was to ask people to sort their waste better in order to avoid contaminating them with organic waste and thus increase their value for the waste pickers. I would love to return and start an initiative relating to this topic. 

What do you think stuck out most from their story and how is the situation in your countries? I would love to hear from you too. 

My best, 
Salua
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  • kunene47
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Re: "Waste pickers" - informal sector in solid waste management, examples from Lebanon, South Africa, ...

My name is Lucas and I am a retired environmental health practitioner. I worked in the city of Johannesburg for a number of years. During my engagement with the health department I was encouraged by a colleague to apply for a regional mangers post in the solid waste department where I was appointed after a string of interview processes. I was in charge of a depot of approximately a thousand employees ranging from admin staff, fleet and unskilled labor.  My main role apart from managing staff and fleet, was to ensure that the area under my jurisdiction (approximate population 400000) was clean, sanitary and that all the solid waste by-laws were adhered to (collection of and disposal of household refuse, sweeping of streets, highways, flushing of shop fronts and street gutters). At the time recycling was not regarded as an important aspect of the city's objective and the solid waste department paid little attention to that respect. The process only became popular in the early 90s not only in Johannesburg but in the country in general when dumping and littering became rife especially in the cities and towns. due to an influx of people due to relaxation of laws and so on.  

Waste picking has currently become a big business in Johannesburg in particular and pickers have formed themselves into small collaborative groups and syndicates. To control the scourge of littering and dumping,  the waste management department came up with awareness, education and outreach programs encouraging communities to separate their refuse at source i.e. at the household level before the waste collection day.  This call has had no positive results.  Although this practice has become common and popular in the city and surrounding suburbs including some townships, it is still in its infant stage. The pickers are not registered and operate informally lacking proper control and discipline. For instance, in some areas they create a public health nuisance by emptying refuse bins in search for recyclable material. This happens on the day the waste is collected by the municipality. In the process they the leave the area littered with paper . As mentioned earlier that the process is informal and uncontrolled, any vacant site is used as a sorting area and this result in conflict with the immediate communities. 

The municipality has made no provision of infrastructure for waste pickers and this pushed them to operate as indicated above. It wished that the waste pickers could be under its control with the the products sold at its depots where facilities are provided. This arrangement could not materialize as the pickers were not prepared to work for the city at a cost determined by it for their products. Some interviewed by the media indicated that they were paid more by the private sector compared to what the city offered. Because of this misunderstanding, they were left to fend for themselves. There were private companies and individual who wanted to lure the pickers to work for them promising them PPEs and safe trollies to haul their products, but the pickers were not interested in the offers. Although some were lured to the arrangement but pulled out at a later stage. Many big cardboard and paper manufacturing companies joined the recycling business. They have developed a similar collection system as the council providing bags to households and collecting the recycled waste on the same day as the municipality though at different times. 

The city has encouraged households especially in the suburbs to put out their recycled waste (plastic, paper,) with other waste on the scheduled collection day. But the system seem to be failing since the informal pickers collect this early in the morning before the council start operating- which is normally after after 09:00 am. The suburbs also have advantages where special facilities are provided where garden waste, bottle, plastics, tins or metals are be deposited for recycling. The townships have no such facilities and hence the indiscriminate dumping of recyclable material which renders the areas unsightly and insanitary.  

Waste pickers are making some good sum of money. When interviewed by the media one waste picker indicated that he was making close to a thousand rand a day. He further mentioned that his group have arrangement with some of the high rise and cluster complexes where 20-30 refuse bins are provided and this was where the money was based on the the amount of waste generated therefrom which is mainly recyclable.

Waste pickers while making money are at the same time saving our planet by keeping our cities, rivers and open spaces free from pollutants. This effort can only be enhanced if we can change our behavior of polluting and fouling our environment.
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  • saluamoussawel
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  • A solid-waste and wastewater master's graduate. I have a passion for all things environment, specifically waste, and love to network and hear about existing projects and initiatives. I am German and Lebanese and have been an active advocate of best waste management practices in Lebanon for several years now.
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Re: "Waste pickers" - informal sector in solid waste management, examples from Lebanon, South Africa, ...

Hello Lucas, 

Thank you so much for sharing your story. I have a few comments and questions. 

I've heard about the nuisance issue you raised with leaving garbage scattered after trying to find the reusables. This, I noticed, happens most often when it is not illegal to waste-pick. Otherwise, waste pickers might try to do so subtly so that they are not caught or complained about and thus can avoid authority involvement. 

I can also understand and expect that awareness sessions didn't work as hoped for. Even though we come from almost very different parts of the world, we have the throw-away culture among our populations in common. Just from a very individual experience, once I explained to a few friends and colleagues of mine that when you sort you avoid contamination and raise its value for the waste pickers. I saw even the most stubborn of them start to change their behaviors. This was just one observation among my small circle, but maybe encouraging people to empathize with the difficult tasks that waste-pickers undergo to earn very little, starts to make making small changes in daily habits sound bearable. However, on a larger scale, using house-to-house interviews and awareness attempts, I was part of a city-wide project that did not work as well (similar to your experience). 

Regarding the profits, I am curious, how much is a thousand rand worth or in other words, what can you buy with a thousand rand? High profit also makes it more logical that they refused other municipality or private sector paying jobs, as their profit will be marginally cut. 
I agree with you that waste pickers can be an integral part of the recycling value chain. It is, however, because I have so much respect and appreciation for them, that I would wish their efforts to be protected and carried out safely and with dignity. I most often hear that cooperatives are the best way for them to organize themselves. If the municipality or other organizations would like to be involved, I would consider one of the possibly good options to be that they do so by supporting the waste-pickers' existing network, and by for e.g. help empowering them or supporting them with the right tools to amplify their efforts.  

On a side note, it is humbling to hear about an experience from one of the bigger cities, like Johannesburg in South Africa... I'm curious to know more- Are there any members out there that can share something from the Asian region? Or maybe from the Americas since Brazil already has some success stories currently at play. Not excluding, of course, the many other countries that might have a whole other system that would be super interesting to hear about. I shared my experience from Middle-East Asia for example but am sure that I can also learn from countries with similar Arabic cultures as mine. 

Also, you raised a good point on the possible overlap and almost competition of waste-picking and the state... I might not be aware enough of these issues and would love to know where and how waste-picking can become problematic not for the waste-pickers themselves, but for the state and the regulated recycling systems in place. 

Kind regards, 
Salua
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  • Chaiwe
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Re: "Waste pickers" - informal sector in solid waste management, examples from Lebanon, South Africa, ...

Dear Salua and Lucas,

The experiences shared are insightful and relatable despite the different contexts. I really feel most countries need to formalise and unionise waste picking for the sake of the health and safety of all and especially the waste pickers themselves. Lucas highlighted that waste picking is becoming a growing business in Johannesburg, i think this is true for other parts of the continent as well. There is need for local authorities to ensure that there is an organised and formalised system in place to allow for the proper operation of the service.

In most developing countries, the rapid growth of urbanisation has led to an increase in demand for informal waste collection
services as most cities lack the infrastructure and resources to collect the totality of wastes generated by their inhabitants. Residents and businesses usually resort to burning garbage or disposing of it in undesignated sites including streets, rivers, and open dumps etc.

The situation in Lebanon is not very different from the Zambian situation, mainly waste pickers engage in the activity of waste picking to provide for their families and do not earn much from the sales they make. With the many risks that are attached to this activity it is of great importance that the issue is given the attention it deserves to ensure those who participate in the activity do so in the best interest of sustaining the environment and protecting themselves in case of health risks or injuries.

I have in the recent past come across new advances with respect to recycling at both small and large scale. (Upcycling of plastic waste into building material such as poles and paving blocks for example). I, therefore, feel the demand for recyclable waste is steadily growing in developing countries and is steadily encouraging the growth of the water picker livelihood. What is the situation like in Lebanon and South Africa in this regard to complete the chain?

Regards,
Chaiwe
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  • saluamoussawel
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  • A solid-waste and wastewater master's graduate. I have a passion for all things environment, specifically waste, and love to network and hear about existing projects and initiatives. I am German and Lebanese and have been an active advocate of best waste management practices in Lebanon for several years now.
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Re: "Waste pickers" - informal sector in solid waste management, examples from Lebanon, South Africa, ...

Hi Chaiwe, 

Thank you for responding. I agree with everything you say and have to chime in with a reoccurring thought: Waste is valuable. I find burning or landfilling waste so saddening because I'm aware of all the resources (time, water, electricity, human labor, money) that goes into making a plastic bottle or a cardboard box... I admire how waste pickers know its monetary value too. A day's collection feeds a family which takes appreciating waste to a whole new level. 

A colleague has shared her experience with waste pickers from India so I'm happy to share it below in a separate post.

Kind regards, 
Salua
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  • saluamoussawel
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  • A solid-waste and wastewater master's graduate. I have a passion for all things environment, specifically waste, and love to network and hear about existing projects and initiatives. I am German and Lebanese and have been an active advocate of best waste management practices in Lebanon for several years now.
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Re: "Waste pickers" - informal sector in solid waste management, examples from Lebanon, South Africa, ...

Dear all, 

A colleague shared her experience from India in the following link:  Informal sectors in waste management: What can developed countries learn from India? (linkedin.com)  

What stood out to me personally: 
  • The names given to waste pickers in her example. In the very first sentence she mentions: "Rag pickers or "Kabadiwalas" are a boon for developing nations and India..." I wonder how naming differs among different countries and what we think about some of the current English terms such as informal recyclers, waste pickers, scavengers etc. 
  • "There is a place in Delhi called Tagore garden which is known for exchange of recyclables for food." 
  • "These kabadiwals are usually poor and small children are also part of this sector." How often do we see kids involved? In Lebanon's case, fairly often.
I hope to see more examples shared. These stories are very valuable as it is not a topic discussed often enough. 

Best regards, 
Salua
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  • Elisabeth
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Re: "Waste pickers" - informal sector in solid waste management, examples from Lebanon, South Africa, ...

Hi Lucas, Salua and Chaiwe,

Very interesting posts, thank you! I am just wondering what the three of you think of the Wikipedia article on this topic:
en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Waste_picker

Do you find it's quite well developed? Are certain newer publications maybe missing and ought to be cited? Is the article comprehensive and written in a language that is easy to understand for laypersons?
One quick improvement that could easily be made is to expand the lead section to become a better summary of the article. Any takers?

Also, do you have photos from your own collection that could be added to this article? There are only two photos so far.

Regards,
Elisabeth
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  • saluamoussawel
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  • A solid-waste and wastewater master's graduate. I have a passion for all things environment, specifically waste, and love to network and hear about existing projects and initiatives. I am German and Lebanese and have been an active advocate of best waste management practices in Lebanon for several years now.
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Re: "Waste pickers" - informal sector in solid waste management, examples from Lebanon, South Africa, India...

Dear Elisabeth and all, 

I agree, the lead section can be longer, I will attempt to add a few sentences along with any other takers. 

One text stood out: 
"...One of the most extreme manifestations of such stigma occurs in  Colombia , where, since the 1980s, " social cleansing " vigilante groups, sometimes working with police complicity, have killed at least two thousand waste collectors, beggars, and prostitutes—whom they refer to as "disposables" (desechables). In 1992, around the peak of this activity, eleven corpses of murdered waste collectors were discovered at a university in  Barranquilla . Their organs had been sold for transplants and bodies sold to the medical school for dissection (Medina 2009, 155)." 

I'm shocked and disturbed that this happened as I wasn't aware of the deep extent to which waste pickers are seen as targets for hate crime. Very unfortunate and saddening. I think, as I love the world of waste and all what it entails so much, I find myself in a bubble unaware of what a poor image it can have for others.

Would be interesting to see if there are any initiatives to shift the narrative? 

My best, 
Salua
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  • Chaiwe
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Re: "Waste pickers" - informal sector in solid waste management, examples from Lebanon, South Africa, India...

Dear Elisabeth and Salua,

I find it quite sad that we have not yet gotten to a time and place where waste pickers are seen as essential service providers in the sanitation sector.

This quote from Salua's post is  saddening:

"...One of the most extreme manifestations of such stigma occurs in  Colombia , where, since the 1980s, " social cleansing " vigilante groups, sometimes working with police complicity, have killed at least two thousand waste collectors, beggars, and prostitutes—whom they refer to as "disposables" (desechables). In 1992, around the peak of this activity, eleven corpses of murdered waste collectors were discovered at a university in  Barranquilla . Their organs had been sold for transplants and bodies sold to the medical school for dissection (Medina 2009, 155)." 

In the capital of Zambia Lusaka (population of 3.5million), at least 500 people survive off picking recyclable waste at the main dumpsite (chunga landfill) https://ejatlas.org/conflict/waste-pickers-in-lusaka-struggle-fo-access-to-waste-zambia  The estimated number does not include those that do door-to-door picking and those that do it from other dumpsites. the
waste pickers are not aware of how they can protect themselves as they scavenge for waste at the site, this results in occupational diseases and accidents. In an effort to try and mitigate the accidents and the diseases that result from the unsafe scavenging practices at the dumpsite, there have been suggestions that waste pickets be included in political dialogues about waste management and be trained for the purpose of incorporating them in safer and stable formal and semi-formal jobs to reduce their vulnerability and there should also be waste separation at the source, which is not commonly practiced in Zambia. Informal support structures however do exist i.e some waste pickers take the recyclable waste they pick to some local recycling companies, while others, especially those that pick plastic bottles sale them to informal brewers. 

Zambia launched its new Solid Waste Management act in 2018. It is my hope that as we shape the regulations and implementation of this new act that we factor in the needs and value that the waste pickers offer to the sector.

Thank you for sharing the wiki article Elisabeth, it can do with some additional practical examples and photos. I shall add my contributions.

Regards,
Chaiwe
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  • Kabika
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Good article Chaiwe

Regards

*Joel Kabika* PhD, R.Eng. MEIZ University of Zambia School o f Engineering Dept of Civil & Environmental Engineering Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering Box 32379 Lusaka +260211290962 mobile: +260977880126
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