UNEA 5 Briefing Series: Plastic and Waste Pickers

Plastic takes up a large percentage of the waste handled by waste pickers. Consequently, they are one of the most vulnerable occupation groups that stand to be impacted by the global plastics treaty. The treaty must establish the legal frameworks required to improve working conditions for waste pickers.

Waste pickers from South Africa, Ghana, Tanzania, Kenya, Morocco and Zambia have demonstrated the common need for official recognition from national and municipal governments, better working conditions, PPE, improved payment for their recovered materials and collection and processing service, and an end to social stigmatisation.

The experience of organising shows that these needs are achievable through building representative organisations that will ensure that their voices are heard in negotiations with governments and demonstrate their value to society.

This requires waste pickers to work collaboratively and embed the principles of democracy, equality and environmental justice in their organised structures. Furthermore, municipalities and national governments need to recognise the value that waste pickers play in diverting waste from the landfills, encouraging recycling where materials re-enter the economy and addressing poverty by providing an income for individuals that have been excluded from the formal economy.

In 2019, GAIA Asia Pacific members gathered in Penang, Malaysia for a series of activities, which culminated in a regional meeting where we set our objectives for the next three years (2020-2023).

Just months after the regional meeting, the world confronted the uncertainty and threats of the COVID-19 pandemic, making work on the ground doubly difficult, as the pandemic also exacerbated the already widespread and systemic injustices that we have long been fighting. 

In the face of these challenges, GAIA members remained steadfast in their commitment for a better world. This publication, “POSSIBLE TOGETHER,” is a proof of that.

As written by GAIA International Coordinator, Christie Keith, in her message, “The organizing stories in the publication are a testament to how hard GAIA members have worked since early 2020 – despite great personal risk – to create visionary Zero Waste solutions and oppose toxic pollution. These are stories of cultural survival, fierce resistance, and local transformation.”

It takes a network to have a fighting chance when faced with challenges of this magnitude, and collectively, GAIA members rose to the occasion. They extended each other a helping hand and made sure that their communities would not be left behind. 

The work may be daunting; and the times, challenging. But difficult can become easy; and the impossible, possible when when people work together.

This booklet is a guide that is aimed at all waste pickers who face challenges where they work, focusing particularly on those working on landfill sites, although street pickers are mentioned briefly throughout. It is a brief look at what organizing of waste pickers is and the benefits organizing may provide people working in this sector of the South African economy. It can be used by any waste picker who is interested in solving problems that they and the waste pickers they work with may have where they work.

Economic recovery, job creation, and poverty alleviation are currently at the top of government agendas all over the world. Meanwhile, we continue to face a global waste crisis, which can be mitigated through zero waste solutions, solutions that would address the very issues governments are seeking to resolve.

La reactivación económica, la creación de puestos de trabajo y la disminución de la pobreza encabezan las agendas de los gobiernos de todo el mundo. A la vez, seguimos enfrentando una crisis global de residuos que podría mitigarse mediante la aplicación de estrategias basura cero, soluciones que abordan los problemas que los gobiernos pretenden resolver ahora.

Suchismita Pai of SWaCH and Nguyen Thi Hoai Linh of Environment et Developpment Du TIERS-MONDE (Enda) – Vietnam, share about their work with waste pickers, their experience working with them during the pandemic, and recommendations to improve welfare and safeguard rights of waste pickers.

Waste workers and wastepickers around the globe were badly hit by the pandemic. While their contribution to the community is vital, they are often neglected by the same community that they serve. They deserve more. They deserve better.

This publication aims to provide a diagnosis of the current global situation of wastepickers – informal waste workers that provide a waste management service, and contribute to public health and sustainability but lack social and health protection.