Solid Waste Management and Social Inclusion of Waste Pickers: Opportunities and Challenges

Guanajuato, Mexico. Photo by Dennis Schrader via Unsplash.

Between 500,000 and 4 million people sort trash for a living in Latin America. Most are poor, socially marginalized and politically disenfranchised. Recently, these waste pickers have organized collectively and pressed municipalities to respect their rights and meet their basic needs. Where sorting through trash was once condemned and even illegal, it is more commonly seen as useful in a green trend toward building sustainable cities. Cooperation between waste pickers and municipalities offers the hope of achieving better waste management as well as the social inclusion of these marginalized citizens.

A working paper by Marta Marello and Ann Helwege explores the opportunities and challenges inherent in the model of cooperation between municipal solid waste systems (MWSs) and waste picker cooperatives (WPCs). While greater social inclusion of waste pickers has begun to emerge, closer inspection reveals problems that emerge as cities move up an envisioned process of inclusion from supporting independent, informal wastepicking to subcontracting municipal services to competitive waste picker cooperatives.

The authors use three cases to identify opportunities and challenges presented by inclusion of waste pickers at each stage of development: Luz del Futuro in Bluefields, Nicaragua; the recycling cooperatives in the outskirts of São Paulo, Brazil and the process of biofuel conversion at Mexico City’s Bordo Poniente dump. The authors find that the inclusion process brings new challenges at each step of development. In the poorest countries, waste pickers almost certainly need more support than most municipal solid waste agencies can offer. In middle-income countries, new waste picker cooperatives find themselves at odds with existing networks of waste pickers, as well as with formal sector workers who exert considerable political power. Overall, waste picker inclusion is a poor substitute for training programs that might yield much higher levels of productivity in other sectors.

Read the Working Paper