Zack Gross
Zack Gross

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Global Recyclers Can Turn Rags Into Riches 

Brandon Sun “Small World” Column, Monday,  Monday, March 26  / 12

Zack Gross

I recently picked up Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity, the newly-published first book by Pulitzer Prize winning journalist Katherine Boo.  This is a story about waste pickers living and working in a slum in Mumbai (formerly called Bombay), India. 

They are really recyclers, living in abject poverty by our standards, going through mountains of garbage to collect the materials that they can sell to industry in order to sustain themselves.  In so doing, they are also sustaining our planet, just as carrion eaters who may be looked down upon, ultimately clean up our eco-system and the garbage with which we foul it.

In recent years, our planet’s population has changed over from a majority of rural dwellers to a quickly growing majority of urbanites.  This has been caused by an exodus into the cities, especially in developing countries, and a population boom in those mushrooming metropolises.  800 million people now live in overcrowded slums in cities such as Nairobi, Mexico City and Mumbai.  They live on lands on which they have squatted, always with the concern that they may be evicted.  They live next to garbage dumps, airports, polluted waterways, and fancy hotel and mall districts.

There are millions of waste pickers worldwide, with the phenomenon growing in our wealthy countries, not just overseas.  There have always been waste pickers but numbers have grown with industrialization and urbanization, and with the huge explosion of waste that is associated with our consumer society. 

Waste pickers face discrimination, danger and dirt in their difficult jobs. They are not just waste collectors because they are all about finding a little bit of “wealth” for themselves in the ultimate reusability of the items they choose as they comb through the world’s garbage dumps.  Part of their culture and vocation is the haggling to get a good price and move their inventory back into the industrial stream.

Often, these waste pickers are the only garbage collection or recycling service available in today’s major Third World cities.  While we complain if the garbage truck misses our place once in a lifetime, around the planet many countries pick up at best half of the garbage their inhabitants generate.  The rest is burned by residents and businesses, or dumped in ditches, streams and vacant lots. 

Combined with the air pollution created by unregulated motor vehicles, environmental degradation (air, water, land) has become the leading cause of illness and death in the developing world.

For people who lack formal education, and with the crowding of urban areas with the unemployed, waste picking has become an opportunity to earn a sustainable livelihood for many people.  The efforts of environmentalists to promote an antidote to our blind creation of waste, along with industry’s search for resources (newspaper, cardboard, glass, cans) has combined with growing urban unemployment in both poor and “rich” countries to make recycling an everyday practice and profession.  Even climate change has been mitigated by recycled paper and other wood products taking the place of the constant destruction of virgin forests.

There is also a downside.  Many waste pickers are children who miss the opportunity to attend school.  As well, waste pickers are often seen as litterers of unusable refuse and spreaders of garbage-related disease.  They also are often accused of recycling what they steal – wiring, fencing and, says one reference, even manhole covers. 

Because waste pickers are exposed to fecal matter, toxic chemicals, needles and batteries, there is no doubt that their health is affected.  Some studies have shown that the lifespan of a picker is 2/3 that of the rest of society.  Risk of injury is high, as pickers clamber through mountains of waste.  Social discrimination by the public and harassment by police authorities has gone as far as murders of pickers as “disposables”.

Waste pickers in many situations operate as individuals or family groups, but increasingly in recent years, there have been successful efforts in Latin America, Asia and Africa to organize as co-operatives, private companies and associations and ultimately to unionize. 

Given the valuable service that they have been recognized to perform, some waste picking groups have formed partnerships with local governments, leading to the use of uniforms, safety equipment and the right to negotiate a place with dignity and fair compensation in the overall workforce.  In 2008, delegates from thirty countries met in Bogota, Colombia at the first World Conference of Waste Pickers!
Privatization and modernization may prove the main enemy of the waste picking class.  The various local and national alliances of their profession have recently come up against governments and corporations who want to take over the garbage collection/recycling industry.  In New Delhi, India a private company got their local council to criminalize waste picking, so that it could have all of that industry to itself, throwing 100,000 people out of work.

When you head out next recycling day with your blue bag or box, it would be appropriate to think about your place in this vast, unheralded occupation of keeping our planet clean and organized.  Potentially, for the poor, this is a rags-to-riches story.

Zack Gross works for the 
Manitoba Council for International Co-operation (MCIC), a coalition of more than 40 international development organizations.

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