Informal Trash Recyclers Go Global

In poor cities around the world, millions eke out a living by scavenging recyclable materials from the streets that can be exchanged for fractions of a cent. They are at the lowest rung of consumer society, the very rock-bottom of globalization. And they know it. “If we were any poorer, we’d be dead,” said Jorge Eliécer Ospina, a trash recycler in Bogotá, Colombia.

April 11, 2008

In poor cities around the world, millions eke out a living by scavenging recyclable materials from the streets that can be exchanged for fractions of a cent. They are at the lowest rung of consumer society, the very rock-bottom of globalization. And they know it. “If we were any poorer, we’d be dead,” said Jorge Eliécer Ospina, a trash recycler in Bogotá, Colombia.

La Alquería Recycling Center in Bogotá. (Photo: Leslie Tuttle)

Ospina lives in a hillside slum on the outskirts of the city. Like a modern day hunter-gatherer, he leaves in the early morning to see what valuables city residents have thrown out in the trash. Ospina is part of an organization of self-employed, or informal, scrap collectors called the Bogotá Association of Recyclers (ARB), one of the oldest waste picker organizations in the world.

The 18,000-member ARB hosted hundreds of waste pickers from over 40 countries for a four-day conference in early March. Funded by international non-profits, the First World Congress of Waste Pickers was held “to exchange experiences and to create national and international alliances that will protect us from being stepped on by local governments,” said Ospina. The conference demonstrated that although trash recyclers around the world face socio-economic marginalization and harassment from local authorities, recyclers are also becoming increasingly organized and are winning important victories.

As part of the conference, local recyclers in Bogotá took their counterparts from Africa, Asia, and the rest of Latin America on a tour of important recycling spots in the city. One of the first stops was a visit to La Alquería Recycling Center in a working-class Bogotá neighborhood. When the tour bus arrived, local workers wearing dark jumpsuits and surgical masks plowed through a sea of garbage to greet the foreigners. Glass shards and trash crunched under their feet as they sifted through the mess. The piles of trash were the fruit of a week’s labor for Bogotá’s waste recyclers.

The Privatization of Trash

Recyclers in Bogotá bring all sorts of discarded materials to La Alquería in exchange for a few dollars a day. La Alquería was established by the government as a pilot program with hopes of creating five more like it around the city. The center is managed by the ARB and a smaller group of recyclers’ cooperatives, but a government plan could change all this.

ARB workers might lose their jobs in August. (Photo: Leslie Tuttle)

In August, the Bogotá government will solicit proposals to transfer management of La Alquería to private contractors. “We’re afraid of the plan and we’re fighting against it at the mayor’s office,” said ARB member Margarita Orozco. “We want this center to remain managed and administered by the recyclers."

The ARB and its allies plan to submit their own proposal for the contract and a Supreme Court case they won in 2003 should help them. The court ruling requires the local government to implement affirmative action policies for informal recyclers in awarding waste management contracts.

Orozco considers the legal case an important victory, but she worries the court’s decision is just words on paper. “We’re going to be up against people that will probably fulfill all the requirements asked by the government. And, we, as an organization of recyclers won’t. They have more capital than us,” she added. “But we know how to run this place, and we’ve already shown that to the city."

21st Century Professional

Recyclers are everywhere in Bogotá. Some weave through traffic on rickety horse-drawn carts. Others rifle through garbage bags and trashcans on the street, throwing the valuables they find into what look like over-size shopping carts. Thanks to the recyclers, Colombia recycles 18 percent of all the waste it produces, according to the government environmental agency—the U.S. recycles 31 percent.

Although they provide a service that helps protect the environment and reduces litter in the city, many Bogotá residents have negative perceptions of waste pickers. Orozco, whose entire family is in the business, cringes every time she hears snickering remarks.

Member of the ARB, an association of recyclers' cooperatives. (Photo: Leslie Tuttle)

“They see us as street people, as ‘disposables,’ as some people call the homeless in Colombia. They believe that all recyclers are drug addicts, thieves, that the women are tramps,” she complained. “But it’s not true: we’re good people, and we work hard."

Worse than discrimination, in Ospina’s eyes, is indifference. He blamed the government: “The government never really recognizes recyclers and the work we do, or the efforts we make for the city and in pretty much the entire world.”

But informal trash recycling worldwide is increasingly viewed as a legitimate profession with positive economic and environmental results. Bernardo Toro, a scholar who works with waste pickers in Brazil, titled his conference presentation: “Recyclers: 21st Century Professionals.” Asked about the title, Toro explained, “A professional is a person that possesses knowledge, abilities, skills, traditions, values and instruments to systematically provide a relevant good or service for society.”

Such economic development agencies as the World Bank and some local governments are beginning to agree with Toro. Since informal trash recyclers are becoming better organized, cash-strapped governments now see them as viable partners and are integrating them into official waste management systems.

A Global Movement

Panelists from Brazil, Chile, Cameroon and other countries shared their experiences with the joint projects. Severino Lima Júnior, a leader of Brazil’s National Movement of Recyclable Materials Collectors, applauded his government for providing his organization a credit line of $85 million with the national development bank. The government hopes the loans will help the group raise incomes and improve working conditions for its members. But just as likely, said groups from several countries, local governments will turn to private companies to manage recycling, which threatens to put thousands of informal workers out of work.

A session of the First World Congress of Waste Pickers. (Photo: Leslie Tuttle)

Hamit Temel from Ankara, Turkey, cited another problem expressed by many participants: near-constant harassment from local authorities. In 2003, the Ankara government destroyed his group’s warehouses in a squatter settlement, where most of them lived. And an Argentine delegation told how just days before the conference, police violently evicted a group of 50 recycler families squatting in a building that doubled as a storage facility.

Harassment also comes in the form of corrupt officials that charge trivial fines. Laila Rashed Iskandar, an organizer with several recycling groups in Cairo, Egypt, said local officials there, and elsewhere, are “notoriously corrupt and see in recyclers a way of extorting money.” She added, “It’s petty municipal employees who have legitimate ways of doing illegitimate things.”

Although trying to forge common solutions to such problems, the conference also highlighted local subtleties among the different delegations. A presentation from Kagad Kach Patra Kashtakari Panchayat, a group made up almost entirely of women from Pune, India, described recycling in India as a highly specialized occupation with a distinct division of labor. Laxmi Narayan and Sangita John outlined a typology of at least six different types of recyclers. At the bottom-end of the hierarchy are those that scour massive dumps and brave frequent dump fires during the summer months. At the wealthier end of the pyramid are doorstep collectors and itinerant intermediaries who simply buy materials collected by others.

The Road Ahead

Some of the groups at the conference do more than simply recycle trash. The Community Sanitation and Recycling Organization (CSARO) from Phnom Penh, Cambodia, uses part of the waste collected by its members to make handicrafts sold in markets. They make flowerpots from discarded rubber tires, stationary from paper, and colorful purses from used plastic. But their most profitable product is packaged compost they make from organic refuse.

Scene from the closing session of the conference. (Photo: Marty Chen)

Iskandar, observed that like her Cambodian colleagues, groups in Cairo specialize in processing recyclable materials and manufacturing. In this aspect, she explained, Cairo is ahead of its Latin American counterparts, who focus on the basic tasks of collecting, sorting, and selling recyclables.

“However, we’re way behind the Latin American organizations in organizing, and consolidating, and dialoguing with government and lobbying for legal, legislative, and procedural reform,” said Iskandar. Asked why, she responded, “Because we’re fragmented; we’re not united. It’s very simple.”

Still, almost all of the conference delegations, including the Latin Americans, were from established recycler organizations, which represent only a fraction of active waste pickers worldwide. Those who continue to work independently do so under more precarious conditions, make less money, and receive no health or social security benefits.

Although Colombia has some of the oldest and best-organized recycler associations in the world, just beyond the conference walls, most recyclers in the city remain outside the loop. Boosting global organizing efforts will surely be revisited in the next world recyclers’ conference slated for 2010.

Teo Ballvé is NACLA’s Web editor. A journalist based in Colombia, his radio report for Free Speech Radio News on global recyclers can be heard here.

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