Future of the Environment

How waste pickers are helping tackle plastic pollution around the world

Waste pickers play an important role in tackling plastic pollution by collecting and recycling plastic waste.

Waste pickers play an important role in tackling plastic pollution by collecting and recycling plastic waste. Image: Dean Saffron for WIEGO

Mark Hillsdon
Freelance Writer, Reuters
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Future of the Environment

  • Waste pickers play an important role in tackling plastic pollution by collecting and recycling plastic waste.
  • There are a number of initiatives underway to improve the working conditions of waste pickers and to increase the value of recycled plastic.
  • Verifying plastic credits will help to ensure that the credits are legitimate and that the money is being used to support genuine efforts to reduce plastic pollution.

There are an estimated 20 million waste pickers across the world, an informal army of street cleaners whose work goes largely unrecognised. Yet to some they are environmental stewards, clearing away the flotsam and jetsam of everyday life, often in countries where regular waste collection services are non-existent.

They tread a precarious path, with little protection, minimal wages and no formal contracts. Andrew Almack, founder of Plastics for Change, a for-profit social enterprise, describes the fragmented, decentralised world of waste picking as “the last frontier”.

But despite efforts to forge better working conditions for plastic waste pickers at recent discussions around a Global Treaty of Plastic Pollution, there are fears things are set to get worse before they improve.

The global trade in trash, e-waste and discarded fast fashion typically travels from the Global North to the Global South. Yet waste plastic breaks the mould. Discarded bottles and packaging can move both ways, with high-value polyethylene terephthalate (PET), used in plastic bottles, collected across Asia and Africa and sold to recyclers and processors in Europe.

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Almack believes the system is stalling as manufacturers pull back from commitments to increase their use of recycled plastic, opting instead for cheaper virgin material, even though it is made from fossil fuels and produces four times as much CO2 per ton as reusing existing plastic.

The Ellen MacArthur Foundation’s latest progress report, Global Commitment 2022, shows that, after two years of small decreases, virgin plastic use has returned to 2018 levels among the hundreds of companies that have signed up to cut their use virgin plastic by 19% by 2025.

Children cross the polluted waters of the Las Vacas in Guatemala amid piles of plastic heaped on the banks.
Children cross the polluted waters of the Las Vacas in Guatemala amid piles of plastic heaped on the banks. Image: REUTERS/Josue Decavele

Almack says the drop in demand from brands is having a huge knock-on effect for millions of waste workers who rely on collecting plastic as the main household income.

Plastics for Change’s work is focused on India, around a huge network of small neighbourhood scrap shops, which collect the trash from waste pickers, sort it and sell it.

Almack is trying to bring more structure to the process and greater visibility across the waste plastic supply chain. “Traditionally, the entire informal waste system works on exploitation,” he says, with no rules to ensure people are paid a minimum wage, or stipulating the number of hours they work. “It's all unregulated,” he says.

Much of his team’s work involves trust-building, and working with scrap shop owners who have had little contact with authority and are naturally sceptical and resistant to change. The scrap dealers are financially incentivised to adopt Fairtrade practices and are compensated for the cost of compliance. The shops are then independently audited, helping to build greater transparency across the recycled plastic supply chain.

The recycled plastic can then be sold on an ethical sourcing platform developed by Plastics for Change that connects waste collectors with global brands and provides a consistent supply of high-quality recycled plastics that comes with an ethical stamp of approval.

Creating this demand for recycled plastic helps to increase its value, explains Almack.

The Body Shop bought 617 tons of plastic waste in 2022 through Plastics for Change in India to incorporate into its recycled packaging.
The Body Shop bought 617 tons of plastic waste in 2022 through Plastics for Change in India to incorporate into its recycled packaging. Image: Body Shop/Handout via REUTERS

Using recycled plastic can give brands a powerful differentiating factor and help them into consumer demands for more sustainable products. Instead of just purchasing a finished bottle to fill with shampoo, says Almack, “the brands who want to make progress towards socially responsible supply chains should have visibility in the tiers below the mill.”

That means specifying recycled plastic that comes from a certified ethical standard as part of their procurement agreements. “That’s a game changer,” he says, “and (then) the entire supply chain is mobilised.”

Both L’Oreal and The Body Shop, which last year bought 617 tons of plastic waste through Plastics for Change in India to incorporate into its recycled packaging, are partners in the programme.

Another country where waste pickers are helping to tackle waste is Indonesia, with nearly 5 million tons of plastic left uncollected or dumped every year. Sam Bencheghib established Sungai Watch to stem the flood of plastic from rivers into the ocean. He uses floating barriers to collect the plastic and then works with community groups to sort and upcycle the waste.

“Indonesia is home to one of the world’s largest population of waste pickers,” explained Bencheghib in an email. “Unfortunately, many regions and cities in Indonesia do not have sufficient waste management infrastructure and it is normal for households to burn their trash or throw it into a river.

“Most waste pickers, however, only collect the valuable materials, such as metal or plastic PET bottles (which they sell on to aggregators, who act as middlemen that then sell to the recyclers). But the less valuable materials, such as plastic bags, sachets, Styrofoam and all of the other materials, stay in the rivers.”

BVRio has used plastic credits to pay fishermen in Rio’s Guanabara Bay to collect waste.
BVRio has used plastic credits to pay fishermen in Rio’s Guanabara Bay to collect waste. Image: BVRio/Handout via REUTERS

Sungai’s team of collectors haul out more than 2,000kg of plastic every day, sorting it into 30 material categories. The organisation now employs more than 100 people, paying them significantly higher wages than the average waste picker.

Sungai is partly funded through brands sponsoring river barriers, although they only work with partners that align with their values. “We still remain selective to ensure that the brands we work with are actually walking the talk,” says Bencheghib.

Sungai recently teamed up with Marriott International to sponsor 15 barriers and remove 100,000kg of plastic from rivers in one year. The partnership was to meet a commitment by Marriott Indonesia to phase out its single-use plastic packaging in bedrooms by the end of 2023.

“We need today’s brands to not only support our work … but also take a public stand on what they are doing internally to fight against plastic pollution,” he adds.

Things are slightly different in Brazil, where the government has helped informal waste pickers – or catadores – to organise themselves into more than 1,000 cooperatives, as well as providing equipment and technical assistance. The non-profit BVRio has been working with many of the cooperatives for the last 10 years, explains its circular economy specialist Pedro Succar, and helped Rio’s Coopama cooperative buy new trucks, which have allowed it to scale up its rubbish collecting by 300%, while taking on 50% more staff.

The trucks were bought using plastic credits supplied by the Alliance to End Plastic Waste.

The mangrove ecosystem in Guanabara Bay is improving as a result of efforts to clear plastic waste.
The mangrove ecosystem in Guanabara Bay is improving as a result of efforts to clear plastic waste. Image: REUTERS/Ricardo Moraes

This new funding mechanism is described a “game changer” by Succar, although it needs to be used in tandem with efforts to improve recycling capacity and raise awareness about over-consumption” of plastics.

BVRio has also used plastic credits to pay fishermen in Rio’s Guanabara Bay to spend two days a week collecting waste rather than fishing. Dwindling stocks had already cut their catch, but a year on there are reports that marine wildlife is returning, and the mangrove ecosystem – so important as a habitat for young fish – is improving.

The credits are supplied by the Italian social enterprise Ogyre, and the plastic catch is recorded and validated by BVRio. It’s this third-party verification that Succar believes is crucial and could help plastic credits avoid the pitfalls that have beset their carbon equivalents. “You can't have the same company issuing the credit as audits it,” he says.

Discussions around plastic credits featured strongly at the recent Paris negotiations, where they were touted as a potentially powerful mechanism to inject private capital into plastic recycling, given that there is predicted to be a $40 billion gap in governments’ ability to fund recycling capacity by 2040.

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Global standards setter Verra issued the first credits under its new plastic waste programme, which pays companies and communities around the world for every tonne of plastic either collected or recycled. The three projects issued credits so far are Second Life in Thailand, a social enterprise that is helping communities both collect and recycling waste on remote Thai islands; Far North Queensland in Australia, which is collecting agricultural waste from banana farms, preventing plastic from entering the Great Barrier Reef; and Deekali Plastic Recovery in Senegal, which is using the money to improve the country’s plastic waste recycling infrastructure.

The company says projects certified under the programme “create measurable, verified impacts in line with environmental and social safeguards that alleviate health risks and facilitate additional social benefits for the informal waste sector”.

Komal Sinha, Verra’s director of plastics and sustainable development policy and markets, says: “To tackle plastic pollution and the socio-economic challenge for waste workers across regions, we need to enable local investment at a global scale. That will drive impactful plastic waste collection and recycling projects now, so we can deliver immediate impact.”

Back in India, Almack believes that if companies are serious about building their sustainable credentials, now is the time to act. “Brands need to leverage their purchasing power. This is the only way to historically ensure that supply chains have transformed,” he says. “(They) need to recognise that the informal waste economy is the backbone of the circular economy.”

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