Waste Networks | Understanding the Bigger Picture

This post was written by Michael Lytton, who is collaborating with Kabadiwalla Connect on research and outreach. Michael is an urban planner with 30 years of experience in the public sector. 

I was recently reading a bi-weekly news roundup on waste pickers, and it occurred to me that the publication is a great way to help readers see the bigger picture. The free newsletter that I was reading is published by Women in Informal Employment: Globalizing and Organizing (WIEGO). The group — it is a global network, and not focussed exclusively on women — is dedicated to the working poor in the informal economy.   

The newsletter offers information and insights, examples of government initiatives and policies, and inspiring stories. It is an important instrument in support of WIEGO's mandate to “build alliances and draw on the expertise of individuals and institutions from constituencies around the globe”. 

The news roundup for March 2-15 included the following items:
In Brazil, the Ministry of Social Development will choose four associations or waste pickers cooperatives for selective collection of waste produced by the Ministry for six months.
In Chile, one thousand women recyclers will be trained in management and entrepreneurship programs.
The federal government of Egypt inaugurated a program to pay waste pickers in the city of Cairo.
Also in Brazil, the National Bank for Economic and Social Development provided Sao Paulo with $41.8 million to raise the recycling rate of household waste from 1.6% to 10%, and to accelerate the inclusion of waste pickers.
In addition to the countries cited above, there are stories from India, South Africa, Dubai, Fiji, Argentina, Peru, Mexico and Honduras.  

More than 3,800 news items about the informal economy have been published by WIEGO since 2014, helping to build capacity among informal worker organisations, expanding the knowledge base, and influencing local, national and international policies. At the same time, stories from around the world put local efforts in context.

For example, a new project to install Sustainability Stations throughout the city of Curtiba, Brazil is remarkably relevant to Chennai. Under the banner of education for sustainability, Curtiba's Department of Environment is making a major effort to engage the population in the management of recyclable waste. The intent is to change the culture of the population in the sorting of waste, making it responsible for separation and for rethinking waste production.

“We want to involve citizens in the management of solid waste, optimise selective collection, and create a mechanism of social inclusion by delegating the management of waste collected for recycling to cooperatives or associations," explains the Municipal Environment Secretary, Renato Lima.

Sustainability stations are part of the Voluntary Delivery System of Recyclable Waste, whereby citizens bring their waste to a modified shipping container that will receive 12 types of recyclable materials. The program provides for the deployment of at least one station in each of the 75 districts of Curitiba, with each unit intended to serve residents within a 300-meter radius. Outreach staff from the Department of Environment will go door-to-door to announce the installation of each new station, and distribute a booklet with guidelines for proper separation and disposal of recyclable materials. 

The current scheme follows Curtiba's rewards-based recycling program Câmbio Verde (Green Exchange) that was launched in 1991. It began as an exchange of waste for bus passes but soon included basic food staples exchanged for waste. 

The idea became the model for the Mexican city of Puebla where a program Monedero Ecológico (Ecological Wallet) was started in 2010. This private sector program gives residents a credit for every kilogram of solid waste they bring in. The credit can then be used for discounts on school supplies, cell phone minutes, clothes and food. 

It is interesting to note that Curtiba's current policy of citizen engagement and voluntary delivery of recyclables comes decades after its selective collection project.  Curtiba shut down its dump in 1988 and the following year began collecting and separating recyclable materials (glass, plastics, paper) three times a week under its renowned Lixo Que Não é Lixo (Trash That Is Not Trash) program. The deployment of dedicated recyclable collection points along with active citizen participation is a progression that will ostensibly result in economies of scale, improved quality and value of recyclables, and new skills for waste pickers. 

Clearly, advocacy organizations such as WIEGO can be enormously valuable sources of information. They are more than 3,000 publications and resources on its website. There is a vast repository of working papers, organising, legal, technical, statistical and policy briefs, and profiles of workers' lives. In many ways, the wheel does not have to be reinvented. 

India is in the early stages of modern and effective municipal waste management. Concepts and details such as legal frameworks, integrated waste management, use of voluntary drop-off points, organised waste picker associations and cooperatives, waste education, and inclusion are in most instances still only ideas or early experiments. 

At the same time, the challenges cannot be underestimated. On the issue of inclusion alone, researchers describe the process as "bumpy", pointing out that "[w]here inclusion is taken up by the municipality with the intent of increasing recycling rates, waste picker cooperatives must negotiate a host of issues, including access to equipment and space, coordination of sales to maximise pricing across seasons, materials and geography, and the difficulty of resolving conflicts within the waste picking sector itself."  Furthermore, even in apparently successful situations, efficient waste management is not labour intensive enough to absorb all or even a small share of the people who survive on trash scavenging. In Bogota, for example, an estimated 14,000 people survive as waste pickers, while the inclusion process provides incomes for 700 people. And although inclusion can be part of a broader social agenda that incorporates microenterprise development, such programs depend on resources outside the typical portfolio of a city waste collection agency. To truly address the needs of waste pickers, waste management modernisation must be coupled with broader social policies.

That said, avail yourselves of the resources of such exemplary organizations as WIEGO. You will be educated and encouraged. 

- Written by Michael Lytton

Picture sources:

1. http://wiego.org/sites/wiego.org/files/Waste-Pickers-1.jpg
2.http://wiego.org/sites/wiego.org/files/leslie%20tuttle%20general%20assembly%20ga%202010%20brazil%20belo%20horizonte%20coopersoli%20wastepickers%20workers%20-%2025_0.jpg
3.http://wiego.org/sites/wiego.org/files/ctools/colombia%20waste%20pickers%2061.jpg