What Will Happen to Plastic Collectors When We Get Rid of Plastic?

A UN treaty to reduce plastic pollution could be a game changer for the environment.

A photo of plastic bottles in a mesh bag. Black people talking can be seen in the background, and it is a sunny day.

Xavier Messina/Pexels

An estimated 20 million workers across the globe work in similar conditions, collecting trash and recycling outside of formal waste management systems. In Asia, Africa, Latin America, North America, and Europe, the world’s waste pickers climb over landfills, return cans to bottle depots, or collect trash in informal settlements where no municipal service exists. They are responsible for approximately 60 percent of plastic recycling worldwide—and yet, as more governments seek to reduce their plastic waste, many fail to account for the workers who not only depend on that waste, but are also mitigating much of its environmental harm.

Indumathi aims to change that. In late May, she arrived in Paris for the second session of the UN Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee on Plastic Pollution, which aims to develop a legally binding agreement to end plastic pollution. Alongside fellow activists from Kenya, Ghana, Argentina, the US, and other countries, Indumathi is advocating for recognition for the essential work waste pickers are already doing, as well as for what advocates call a “just transition”—a fair and inclusive set of policies that enable the shift away from plastic while creating decent opportunities for workers. “We have to fight, and it’s going to be a long fight,” Indumathi told me.

In virtually every country where they work, waste pickers’ demographics intersect with some of the most marginalized populations in the world: Many workers are from undocumented, unhoused, low-caste, and low-income communities, which experience high rates of crime, poverty, mental illness, and other systemic barriers. As workers, they also endure harassment from the police and other citizens, because in some regions, collecting materials from dumpsters or on the street may be considered stealing. This stigma and socioeconomic exclusion often hide waste pickers’ contributions to the economy. But since the early 1990s, activists among them have been speaking out, demanding better compensation and social protections from local governments.

Now, their fight has taken on a new urgency. The global plastics treaty currently under negotiation has been hailed as a once-in-a-generation opportunity to reshape our relationship with plastic and the most significant multilateral environmental deal since the 2015 Paris Agreement. Once finalized, it could be adopted as early as 2025. It’s not yet clear what the treaty will require countries to do, but obligations on the table include implementing a cap on plastic production and phasing out toxic chemicals in plastic products.

A significant bloc of countries is calling for measures to prevent and manage plastic waste, which in some cities accounts for more than 50 percent of the materials waste pickers process. But as cities seek to improve their recycling rates, they may hire private companies, which then would likely lock landfills, set up new collection systems, and compete directly with waste pickers for recyclable materials—in most cases, waste pickers say, without their prior consultation. While everyone agrees that plastic needs to be better managed, many waste pickers turned to this work because they lacked alternative opportunities for employment. Losing access to plastic waste could jeopardize their only means of income.

Member states of the UN Environment Assembly are in charge of developing the treaty, so in their quest for a just transition, that’s who waste pickers and their advocates need to get on board. The first step in a just transition, according to their platform, is fairly simple: Governments need to recognize the importance of the work waste pickers do and have done, and that is so often made invisible. This recognition includes actively engaging them in the transition process, as well as offering contracts, compensation, and benefits. For some, this means integration into formal waste management systems with legal status, while others prefer to remain autonomous. Both groups of workers seek job security as plastic economies change, with roles sorting, driving, and assisting at new recycling facilities, or a safe place to sell their wares. As residents on the front lines of plastic pollution, they also support policies to ensure that all plastic produced is ultimately recyclable, with no incineration.

In terms of recognition, it seems that waste pickers’ organizing efforts have been fruitful. Inger Andersen, the executive director of the UN Environment Program, opened the latest round of treaty talks emphasizing the need to “redesign for justice, for the workers of the informal waste sector.” Though many waste pickers faced financial barriers, they knew that attending the talks was critical to gaining an audience—both at the UN and at home. Indeed, on the sidelines of the Paris event, the International Alliance of Waste Pickers, a congress of more than 400 organizations, met with dozens of policymakers and other stakeholders.

Representatives from South Africa, Kenya, Uruguay, Brazil, Colombia, and the Philippines actively spoke to waste picker concerns, according to advocates who observed the sessions. Several of these countries have also pledged their support for a just transition, while other groups, from the UN Commission on Human Rights to the Business Coalition for a Global Plastics Treaty (which includes the likes of Unilever, Walmart, Target, and H&M) shared their explicit concern for the informal sector.

This sort of acknowledgment is just the first step toward more substantive action, said Neil Tangri, science and policy director of GAIA, an international network of grassroots environmental organizations, front-line communities, and waste management experts. But it’s remarkable progress compared to waste pickers’ reception at the UN climate conference in 2009. Back then, it was impossible to even land a meeting with governments. In 2022, in contrast, negotiators agreed to include engagement with the informal sector as an official part of the treaty process—recognizing them not only as a population in need but also as experts to be consulted. “Compared to 15 years earlier, it was like pushing on an open door,” Tangri said. “And that speaks to the strength of the power that they have built in each country.”

A photo of a woman with brown skin and dark brown hair wearing a green short and gray vest outside.

Indumathi, an entrepreneur and former waste picker from India, joined fellow activists at a recent meeting of the UN Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee on Plastic Pollution.

Erin X. Wong

The first waste picker organizations formed as cooperatives in Brazil and Colombia, as a trade union in India, and as a group of dumpsite workers in Senegal, each of which laid the foundations for national and regional alliances. By 2008, the first international conference was hosted in Bogota, including waste pickers from nearly every region in the world. The waste pickers’ movement now spans 34 countries, including a handful in the Global North.

Recognition in the plastics treaty negotiations has offered a platform waste pickers never anticipated, said Soledad Mella, a Chilean waste picker activist, at an event during the recent Paris meetings. But recognition, she added, will mean nothing if it doesn’t translate into actual policy requirements. In the meantime, Mella said, waste pickers continue to collect everyone’s plastic waste in fields and waterways, nodding to a broader sentiment: They can’t afford to wait for governments to act.

“A lot of our organizations are already providing a just transition for workers,” said Taylor Cass Talbott, who is the just transition strategic lead at the nonprofit WIEGO, which has supported the International Alliance of Waste Pickers since 2008. “Our specific talking points of ‘Look, this is what a just transition needs’—this comes directly from our experience of how we were able to provide that for workers, and we need to be able to provide that for many, many more workers.”

In Kenya, multiple waste picker associations are combining their earnings to cover health care costs among their workers (for whom accidents and illness are common). They are also starting to bargain with recycling companies on the price of the materials they sell, according to John Chweya, chairman of the Kenya National Waste Pickers Welfare Association. In South Africa, the Department of Forestry, Fisheries, and the Environment has developed guidelines for cities and companies to integrate waste pickers into their plans to collect post-consumer plastic from landfills. In Ghana, where waste pickers were twice displaced from landfills that sustained fires or were decommissioned, WIEGO provided training for yet another waste picker organization, which is now developing its own employment opportunities by proposing door-to-door trash and recycling systems in low-income neighborhoods.

Indumathi, the waste picker from Bengaluru, is now the head of a government-contracted waste collection service with 88 employees. She’s proud to say that her city looks nothing like it did before, thanks in large part to the city’s 30,000 waste pickers. The nonprofit Hasiru Dala, which incubated her company, successfully advocated for the government to produce occupational ID cards to combat harassment, vehicles to transport waste, and PPE during the pandemic. She is now able to provide monthly wages and health insurance to all of her employees. “I want to see all waste pickers throughout the world have this opportunity,” Indumathi said.

During the recent plastics treaty negotiations, a proposal to include the words “just transition” as a core obligation arose on the fourth night of closed-door discussions. Though it is still too early to know if this requirement will make it into the draft text to be discussed at the next negotiating committee meeting in November, members of the waste picker delegation are optimistic. “It feels good,” Chweya said, “but there is still so much work to do.”

More Mother Jones reporting on Climate Desk

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