Thanking our waste pickers and workers in time of COVID-19 pandemic

By Edel S. Garingan, GAIA Resource Mobilization Associate for Asia and the Pacific

On December 20, 2019, amid the festivities and preparation for the holiday season, when people were already lining up in the malls to buy gifts and are musing about their menus for the special dinner and reunions, I found myself gazing at a bunch of food waste tucked inside old tires piled together as a makeshift facility for organic waste composting in Brgy. Niugan,Malabon City in the Philippines. It was my first exposure on Zero Waste implementation in the country. I met some of the dedicated waste workers in the community who were so enthusiastic in explaining to me and other GAIA staff how they manage their Materials Recovery Facility (MRF) that serve about 5,000 people. Aside from Brgy. Niugan, we also visited two other barangays implementing the same project. It was very impressive–waste workers are doing door-to-door collection, they are educating households on the importance of segregating wastes, and they are tending to a community garden where they use inputs from their organic compost. Meeting them and learning about the essential work that they do to promote the principles of Zero Waste in our communities is one of the best gifts I ever received that year.

Unknowingly, on the other side of the world, a new strain of a corona virus has just started infecting people in an escalating manner that it will pose a serious threat to the human population and will put cities and other areas under a total lockdown. Within three months after the first case was reported in Mainland China, more than a million people around the world had been infected by the virus that was later on identified as COVID-19.

On an ordinary day, waste workers in Zero Waste cities in Asia would wake up early in the morning, prepare their kart or vehicle, and would roam around the community, collecting waste, one house at a time. In the afternoon, they will have more time to spend with their children, do other work in the community, and in many cases, engage in other livelihood activities for additional income. Things dramatically changed as the COVID-19 cases shoot up in many countries and lockdowns were enforced.

The order of the day is to stay home and practice social distancing. But to many, this is not even a choice. They have to be at the frontline to serve and protect the greater community–this includes our waste pickers and workers. They risk their safety to continue to work outside their homes so that our wastes do not stay at home with us.

While many of them are able to continue their work under the prejudice of limited access to protective gears and equipment, it does not mean they earn the same. With businesses shutting down including junk shops and recycling facilities, waste pickers and workers are not able to sell the recyclable materials that they collect. This has greatly compromised their small income. Worse, in some areas where lockdown has been tightened up, some have totally lost their job, spending the quarantine with no income and limited resources to bring food on the table.

Long before the COVID-19, our waste pickers and workers had already been unrecognized; they are underpaid and have limited access to social services. Now, more than ever, they need our help to be able to get through the crisis. We need to help them so they can continue to be at the forefront in addressing plastic pollution and promoting a Zero Waste system as the solution for the waste crisis in Asia. 

Rising up for the waste pickers and workers and in honor of the essential work they do, a lot of civil society organizations in all parts of the world are setting up relief efforts for them. From Mumbai to Bangalore in India, they and their families received food packs and care kits that will help them protect themselves against the virus. In Malabon in the Philippines, a community kitchen that serves healthy food was set up to help boost their immune system. In solidarity to the waste pickers and workers and the grassroot organizations working with them, GAIA established the Emergency Solidarity Fund to pool resources and respond quickly to the emerging needs of the Zero Waste movement and waste pickers and workers around the world. The outpouring support that we receive for the solidarity fund is very overwhelming.

With the grant from the Plastic Solutions Fund and donation from individual advocates, in Asia Pacific alone, we were able to provide food packs and essential sanitary kits to more than 10,000 waste workers. We also distributed personal protective equipment, including mask, gloves, and boots, to a number of waste workers who are still braving the streets to do their job .

On my part, the waste workers in Malabon gave me a special gift last Christmas and that is the opportunity to know them and the work that they do – the same special gift that they give everyday to all of us. I have been thinking of ways to thank them for their work. For one, we can show our appreciation by reducing our wastes and segregating them when disposing. And yes, in times like this, we can thank them by extending help to organizations that help them.