Waste pickers are workers in the informal economy who recover recyclable materials from waste. The ILO estimates that 15-20 million people worldwide earn their living from recycling waste. In developing countries, about one per cent of the urban workforce is engaged in recycling: collecting, recovering, sorting, grading, cleaning, baling, or compacting waste and processing waste into new products.
When waste pickers contribute to solid waste management systems, significant quantities of waste and recycling are diverted from the waste stream and dependence on virgin materials is reduced. As a result, CO2 emissions are substantially lowered, which helps mitigate climate change. Recycling reduces emissions 25 times more than incineration does, and incinerators emit more CO2 per unit of electricity than do coal-fired power plants. Still, waste pickers worldwide are increasingly being displaced by privatization of solid waste management and by disposal systems like incinerators and waste-to-energy technologies.
In the face of these challenges, waste pickers are organizing, negotiating with their municipalities, and developing inclusive waste management models. Successful models exist in in several countries, including Argentina, Brazil and India. Because inclusive models result in more resource recovery, more productive work, better working conditions, and reduced greenhouse gas emissions, waste pickers’ efforts to expand and formalize operations should be supported.