Waste Pickers and Climate Policy

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Waste pickers are workers in the informal economy who recover recyclable materials from waste. They labor on the frontlines of the fight against climate change, earning livelihoods from recovery and recycling, reducing demand for natural resources, and reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Yet their successes are being undermined by "waste-to-energy" incinerators and landfills, and until 2009, they were notably absent from climate change discussions.

Waste picker groups from Asia and Latin America have teamed up with GAIA to make a case for recycling rather than burning or burying waste at the UN climate change talks. This is a critical year for negotiating a second phase of the Kyoto Protocol, with negotiations due to culminate in December 2009 in Copenhagen.

Although the question of waste has received scant public attention, the decisions made in the climate change negotiations will have a huge impact on waste policy and on the lives of recyclers in informal economies, which includes an estimated 15 million people around the world.

As a first stop on their way to the COP-15 meetings in Copenhagen, this partnership organized events in Bonn, Germany at the June 2009 intersessional meetings and released a statement. We presented the relationship between waste and wasting to climate change, the role of waste pickers nd local initiatives that can help in emission reduction goals.

Recyclers are interested in ensuring that financing for climate mitigation does not exclude informal sectors such as waste pickers. Currently, the Clean Development Mechanism has been the primary instrument for delivering climate finance in the form of offset credits. Offset credits represent emissions reductions in countries and sectors not subject to emissions limits - including the waste sector. They are used to compensate (offset) excessive emissions in areas subject to an emissions cap.

Yet the waste credits that have been awarded by the CDM to date have generally not supported the more sustainable approaches of recycling, composting, and reusing materials, and are incredibly difficult for informal workers like waste pickers to access. Instead, they have almost entirely gone to support misguided "waste-to-energy" projects (incinerators and landfill gas systems). These approaches result in greater emissions than the alternatives and threaten the livelihoods of informal sector recyclers, including an award-winning recycling and composting program in Indonesia.

Quick Facts about Climate and Recycling

Climate benefits of recycling

Recycling is one of the cheapest and fastest ways to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Avoiding one ton of CO2 emissions through recycling costs 30% less than doing so through energy efficiency, and 90% less than wind power.

Recycling and livelihoods

Recycling provides productive work for an estimated 1% of the population in developing countries, in processes such as collection, recovery, sorting, grading, cleaning, baling, processing, and manufacturing into new products. Even in developed countries, recycling provides 10 times as many jobs per ton of waste as do incinerators and landfills.

Recyclers on the frontline

Waste pickers' efforts to expand and formalize operations should be supported. This will result in more resource recovery, productive work, better working conditions, and reduced greenhouse gas emissions.

Recycling saves energy and trees

Recycling also saves money. Resource recovery reduces emissions in the forestry, mining and manufacturing sectors by replacing virgin materials used in manufacturing. Much less energy is required to manufacture goods from recycled materials, such as glass, metals, and plastic, than from virgin materials. In the case of paper and wood products, there is another advantage: recycling paper products means less demand for wood and less deforestation.

"Waste-to-energy" vs. recycling

Incineration and landfill gas schemes conflict directly with recycling and composting, competing for similar materials: paper, cardboard, plastics, and organics. Yet recycling reduces emissions 25 times more than incineration does. And incinerators emit more CO2 per unit of electricity than do coal-fired power plants.

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