• An estimated 20 million people around the world work in the informal sector as waste pickers.
  • The COVID-19 pandemic has been catastrophic for these essential workers, who lack basic social or health protections.
  • Waste pickers and informal workers need PPE, food, water and money for medications and supplies in the short term, and government support and recognition in the long term.

From Jakarta to Brooklyn, from Dakar to Rio de Janeiro, waste pickers have laboured tirelessly for decades to keep our streets clean and liveable – all without guaranteed pay, workplace protections or a social safety net.

When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, the fallout was catastrophic.

An estimated 20 million people around the world work as waste pickers, collecting plastics, aluminium and other valuable materials that have been discarded in our streets and dumpsites and selling them to recycling facilities.

In South Africa, for instance, waste pickers contribute up to 90% of post-consumer packaging and paper that are recycled. And in Indonesia, 700,000 tonnes of plastic waste collected by informal workers are recycled every year.

Working with little societal or personal protection, informal sector waste pickers were already highly susceptible to health risks and occupational hazards. The COVID-19 crisis brought unprecedented new challenges: lockdowns, shuttered recycling plants, lack of personal protective equipment and inadequate government support, which have put millions around the world out of work and in harm’s way.

As Pris Polly, chairman of Indonesia’s 3.7-million strong waste pickers union, told us: “If waste pickers don’t work, then they won’t be able to survive.”

Projected waste generation, by region (millions of tonnes/year)
Waste generation is expected to continue to grow.
Image: World Bank

How we can address this challenge

To weather this historic crisis, waste pickers urgently need short-term support: food, water, money for medications and other essentials, and protective supplies like masks and handwashing stations.

The NGO, Women in Informal Employment: Globalizing and Organizing (WIEGO), which has long supported informal workers through research and advocacy, is tracking a global list of fundraisers created by local unions and organisations.

Our partner, Dow, has also co-launched a crowdsource fund in support of waste picker communities worldwide. Through its pilot partnership in São Paulo, Brazil’s largest waste producer, Dow is bringing training, resources and equitable pay to hundreds of waste pickers and their families.

Challenges facing women waste pickers in Ghana

Dorcas Ansah, Accra Focal City Coordinator for the NGO Women in Informal Employment: Globalizing and Organizing (WIEGO), shared insights on the organisation’s work with women waste pickers in Accra, Ghana.

In Accra, women fill the least secure roles in solid waste management and, like elsewhere in the world, they are first to be left behind as the sector formalises.

WIEGO works with Accra’s waste pickers through the Kpone Landfill Waste Pickers Association, which advocates for a more inclusive waste management system in the region.

Women make up one-third of the landfill’s more than 300 waste pickers, who remove almost 800 tonnes of recyclable material from the landfill annually. In 2019, this work prevented the emission of an estimated 24,371 tonnes of eCO2.

Despite their environmental contributions, the workers' livelihoods are under threat. In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, waste pickers learned that the government is closing the Kpone landfill and they will not be allowed to return. The government started the process of decommissioning the landfill without having ensured viable livelihood alternatives or compensation for the waste pickers as they face displacement from the site.

The waste pickers are now working to find alternative livelihoods outside of the landfill. They are scoping coastal communities that need better waste management, and they have staged a pilot for doorstep waste collection. They hope this will help convince the government to give them contracts to be formally included in the sector.

Grace Avemegah is a waste picker in Accra, Ghana, and a leader in the Kpone Landfill Waste Pickers Association. (Photo Credit: Dean Saffron)
Grace Avemegah is a waste picker in Accra, Ghana, and a leader in the Kpone Landfill Waste Pickers Association. (Photo Credit: Dean Saffron)
Yaa Torsu is a waste picker in Accra, Ghana, at Kpone Landfill. (Photo Credit: Dean Saffron)
Yaa Torsu is a waste picker in Accra, Ghana, at Kpone Landfill. (Photo Credit: Dean Saffron)

Waste pickers and informal sector workers need government support

To protect their livelihoods in the long term, we must also advocate for governments and businesses to support informal sector workers in entering the formal workforce – where they can continue carrying out essential work with dignity, security and the reassurance that there is a safety net to fall back on during times of hardship.

This autumn, we will partner with SAP to launch a software solution to connect thousands of waste pickers with potential buyers and recyclers in Ghana and Indonesia. Our goal is to visualise and quantify the tremendous impact that waste pickers have in keeping cities clean – yielding concrete data that can be used to help waste pickers gain government recognition and formalisation.

The road back to “normal” will be difficult, particularly for the most vulnerable. Nevertheless, we hope that the pandemic and the subsequent recovery will shine a much-needed spotlight on this issue, serving as a catalyst for propelling millions of workers and their families out of the shadows.

This editorial was originally published as part of the Sustainable Packaging 2020 campaign, and is reproduced here with permission.