Waste Networks: Economics, Informality and Stigma

Trash talking; there’s more than cities can manage

As consumption patterns across the globe are soaring, so is the corresponding generation of waste – and some of the statistics related to this are alarming. A recent World Bank study estimates that ten years ago, the daily per capita waste generation of the world’s urban population (around 2.9 billion) was around 0.64 kg. Today, both figures have shot up: urban areas house around 3 billion people, generating 1.2 kg of waste every day – meaning that every year, 1.3 billion tonnes of garbage is created in the world’s cities. Neither does this trend show any signs of slowing down, since the same report projects that by 2025, this quantum will nearly double.

In the developing world, the chief concern is that the formal mechanisms for waste management have come nowhere close to building this kind of capacity. In developed countries, centralized approaches have been implemented to handle waste treatment but elsewhere, most cities still follow fragmented, haphazard systems of collection and transportation, and rely on landfill-based approaches to dispose of waste. If the per capita generation of garbage were to go up as projected, it’s highly doubtful that local governments in developing countries would be able to effectively manage them.

The shadow ecosystem; there’s money in your trash

Luckily, they don’t have to do it alone – parallel informal economies centered around waste management have developed across cities in the Global South. These players scavenge, sort, aggregate and upcycle waste; passing it along a well-developed waste chain until it is ultimately recycled. Such communities exist in several developing countries; kabadiwallas in India, catadores in Brazil, cirujas in Argentina, buzos in Costa Rica and cartoneros in Mexico.

Statistics suggest that they are doing a much better job of handling urban waste in developing countries. From a quantitative point of view, informal sectors have demonstrated a better percentage of resource recovery as compared to formal mechanisms in several cities. In Cairo, for example, it is a startling 30 percent to the municipal corporation’s 13 percent. It is also interesting to think about the incentives that drive the formal and informal waste sectors. For instance in India, service providers are paid according to the tonnage of waste they bring to the landfill. They are, in this sense, incentivized to collect, transport and dump more waste into the landfill. This model has lead to serious issues with regards to handling city waste responsibly. In Chennai, there have been many reports of dumping high volume, low weight plastic into the rivers, because this type of waste does not give formal service providers a high return. There have also been reports of garbage trucks picking up large stones and rubble, so as to boost the tonnage brought to the landfill.  On the other hand, informal sectors derive economic benefit from upcycling waste and the peripheral activities associated with it (sorting and aggregating) and are incentivized, instead, to find value in what is discarded everyday.

Economics of Waste; the zen of the informal waste market

Since the informal  ecosystem has developed primarily around an economic incentive, it functions in a fairly organized way – specific categories of waste are assigned prices, which are defined largely by their recycling potential. For instance, categories that have inherent value, such as copper from wiring, have extremely high price points. Those that can be upcycled into a material of value – such as high value plastic and paper – are also in high demand. On the other hand, lower value plastics are assigned lower price points and categories that have no back-end processing potential are neglected and omitted from the ecosystem altogether. It’s largely for this reason that most waste found littered on streets in developing countries include thin polythene covers, thermocol and other materials that lack back-end processing technology.

The functioning of this ecosystem is also defined by the fact that it has grown to fill a gap. All over the world, informal ecosystems develop only where formal ecosystems are unable to cope with the amount of waste generated and operate in parallel with them. Because of this, they serve an important purpose in the urban context. In Dar-es-Salaam, waste is formally collected only twice a week. Informal collectors fill this gap and charge a nominal fee that residents are happy to pay. In Santa Cruz, Bolivia, informal workers service a whopping 37 percent of the population. Indonesian waste-pickers scavenge and upcycle one-third of the country’s waste and in Nuevo Laredo, Mexico, it has been estimated that the economic impact of scavenging is almost half a million dollars every month. Informal players also have an advantage in specific parts of urban centres, such as slums and hilly areas that have poor roads, since their vehicles are smaller and easier to use in them.

Waste and Stigma; the invisible ecosystem

However, the informal context within which this sector operates poses its own set of problems. Informal waste players face a great deal of stigma from society and local governments. In many developing countries, their activities are criminalized and they are frequently harassed by authorities. In Cairo for example, the waste-pickers’ donkey carts were banned from the streets of the city between sunrise and sunset. In Colombia, a shocking ‘social cleansing’ program was implemented during the 80s and 90s by paramilitary forces, that regarded waste-pickers as ‘disposable’ and banished them from certain neighborhoods. The movement reached its zenith when the bodies of 40 waste-pickers, who had been killed and harvested for organs, were found at a Colombian university.

This stigma is particularly shocking given the huge service that the informal waste ecosystem performs for urban centres - upcycling waste and keeping it out of the landfill. On the other hand, popular perceptions of them are generally negative because of regressive associations with their choice of work. The informal waste ecosystem remains invisible in most cities in the Global South, with its impact unquantified. Particularly in India, no attempt has been made to improve its efficiency in delivering an effective way for residents, commercial establishments and industries to send less waste material to urban landfills.   

The road ahead; incorporating the informal waste ecosystem into the formal ways cities handle their waste

Thankfully, there are examples of cities that are adopting more inclusive approaches to shed visibility on informal waste players. For instance, in São Paulo, a Brazilian graffiti artist named Mundano created a project named ‘Pimp My Carroça’. The project was carried out over a month, during which time more than 50 artists and volunteers came together to revamp the carts (carroças) that belonged to waste-pickers and itinerant buyers. The carroças were beautified and equipped with security signals and mirrors, while the waste-pickers and their families were provided with medical check-ups, psychological therapy, meals, haircuts and even massages.

As a country, Brazil has implemented several programs that seek to formalize and incorporate the informal waste economy, and this initiative has been highly successful in adding a sense of legitimacy to the work done by waste-pickers and itinerant buyers. It’s an example that several other cities can learn from. While such a large-scale inclusion program is yet to be developed in India, there are local examples: in Pune, for instance, informal rag-pickers have been formalized under a cooperative called SWaCH, provided with equipment and ID cards and roped in to collect waste for a fee. In Bangalore, a member-based organization called Hasirudala works at bettering rag-picker conditions, offering them structured employment and fair pay.

However, for a national-level model of inclusion, we require a change in mindset - a breaking down of the perception of informal waste workers as being dirty or backward, and an acknowledgement of their contribution to lessening the load on our landfills. Legitimizing the informal sector is one of the first steps in offering its players a sense of dignity, an assurance of safety in their professions and an acknowledgement that they are the silent players who are taking care of a much larger problem.

- Written by Kavya Balaraman


‘Waste Picker Cooperatives in Developing Countries’ – Martin Medina

‘What a Waste: a Global Review of Solid Waste Management’ – The World Bank

‘The Economics of the Informal Sector in Solid Waste Management’ – the Collaborative Working Group (CWG)

‘Pimp My Carroca’ - People of Change - http://weofchange.com/pimp-my-carroca/

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