Saturday, June 2, 2012

The inclusion of informal waste workers in solid waste management planning

Informal waste workers plying the streets of Hanoi, Vietnam

I wrote this in my previous job as Waste Management Project Officer. I'm posting it now.

In developing countries where there is often a lack of services offered by traditional structures, there is often a more important role given to the informal sector. The informal sector is mostly composed of self-employed people who have organized their own business without necessarily having official status (through acquiring a permit, having a proper storefront, etc). One important service many municipalities are falling short on in rapidly developing cities is that of waste management. City governments are having a difficult time cleaning up after more a more affluent lifestyle that leaves huge amounts of waste and packaging in its wake.

Making up this shortage, there are throngs of informal waste workers plying the streets buying re-marketable waste from houses and picking through garbage. They are then able to sell those recyclables to intermediaries – junk shops – and make a small profit in the meantime. It should be clear that the reason for the waste workers to enter the sector is neither to clean up the streets nor to help reduce the amount of resources being sent to landfill. They enter this sector because they may lack the skills or education necessary to be employed in a formal sector, or lack the necessary amount of capital to open a stall or store. The most beneficial aspect of the waste trade is that it only requires some mobility… and well, perhaps a strong voice in order to carry a melodic call for recyclables through the streets. You can hear them everyday calling out to houses… “Booooooooooottles! Plaaaaaaaaaaastic! I will buy your bottles!”

The work is difficult, hauling large bags of paper, cardboard, plastic or glass through the streets or else transporting it with a flimsy bicycle. Despite the laborious nature of the work, there are fringe benefits. Workers are able to work on a flexible schedule, can take extended leaves if they want and are able to make some extra money by working more as they wish. These benefits are particularly important for women. Mothers are able to take on traditional roles in the household while they can also have some extra work when time allows, helping low-income families bridge financial gaps.

Cities like San Fernando La Union, where I was working in the Philippines, are expanding their waste pick-up and recycling services trying to make up for years of not being able to address the increasingly present waste problem. However in expanding this service informal waste workers are being squeezed out of their income. As incomes are increasing in many brackets, the people at the bottom are often stuck in the same situation. More so, many city dwellers look at informal waste workers as undesirable and uncivilized symbols of 3rd world poverty (I use the term 3rd world purposefully).

Policies in developing cities often address the lack of municipal waste management services while ignoring the effects on the informal sector. The sector is mostly composed of low-income individuals either trying to make supplementary income for their family or relying entirely on the income of buying and selling waste. Most urban dwellers support these policies because they not only get rid of waste in the street, but have political machinery and policies that prohibit any waste pick up other than municipal, effectively shutting out the informal sector.

It is therefore incredibly important that this group of workers, the informal workers, be able to benefit from the increased development in creating structures that do not limit their ability to collect waste. As well, it is important that policies be put in place that encourage the hiring of women for private companies when under contract by the city.  Programs that help train and organise women working in the informal waste sector could help them be included in the switch to a more formal structure.

It is incredibly fundamental that with this modernization, government policy makers ensure that those at the bottom of the waste management stream be able to also profit from development. Because the institutionalization and professionalization of the waste management sector often excludes women and the poor from participating, efforts must be made to ensure that programs are in place that allow them to make the step up to the formal sector. The accessible work that the informal sector provides has been instrumental in helping people in poverty to make ends meet; this cannot be forgotten by policymakers.    

Monday, September 12, 2011


The Videoke Station
Two weeks before I left for the Philippines, I was at Le Drugstore, a lesbian bar in Montreal. It was Karaoke Night, an otherwise quiet Tuesday. About 5 people in our  group, the slightly drunk blond host of the night turned to the Asian guy at our table (a Belgian, nonetheless) and said in French You guys, Asians, in your country karaoke is a front for prostitution! Seemingly unaffected by this ignorant comment, our friend ignored her and she continued to sing one of the songs she picked. Sadly, she will probably never be the diva she always wanted to be. However, in the foggy haze of this lesbian bar, everyone in different stages of drunkenness, she can feel like the stage is hers.

In only my first few days of life in the Philippines, I experienced the videoke. Videoke is the Filipino version of karaoke. Even before starting my job here, I was attending a birthday party where the family had rented a videoke terminal. In the middle of rice paddies, outside the tin-roofed concrete house stood the golden podium: a television screen affixed to a tall base on wheels complete with large red buttons and speakers from which our sung ballads will project against the neighbour’s tin-roofs and rice fields.

This is where I first sung Ironic, by Alanis. Little did I know that this was the easiest song anyone can sing, and would soon become my signature song. There has been many (and I mean about several times a week at the peak) times where I sing at videoke, and not one time goes by where I do not sing Ironic. I am told, others have begun to sing it while I am not in attendance. And I’m told it’s sung in my honour.

The previous intern and I are singing to The Sign

Now, karaoke is popular all over East and Southeast Asia, this is a fact. However something about it here makes it more common than anywhere else. In Vietnam, I may have sung karaoke about 5 or so times in the two years I was there. So far, in the two months I have been here I have sung karaoke upwards of 20 times. Most of the bars have a terminal. All you have to do is pay 5 pesos (about 10 cents Canadian) and tell the bar person what number song you would like and it’s done. The microphone will circulate from table to table as patrons sing their favourite love ballads. Even the toughest-looking guys will shoot down glasses of rum or gin while singing Hero by Mariah Carey.

Well, I surely can’t sing Hero (though that didn’t stop me from trying) but as time goes by I am searching for my new signature song. The song needs to be identifiable, easy to sing along to, and ready for its trendy re-emergence.  Some how none of the Ace of Base songs actually work (I’ve ruined Lucky Love and Don’t Turn Around). Celine Dion is way too difficult despite the fact in allows me to insert the fact that I once lived behind her (damn, I did it again). 

As the search continues, I will no doubt make a fool of myself singing way out of my range (my range is beyond what human ears can hear, by the way). Meanwhile, if that drunk rock-bottom diva at Le Drugstore was right, where do I pick up my cheque?

Saturday, July 2, 2011


I was just in Vancouver for my training. There's something about the colour of green and the beautiful Rocky mountains jutting out of the horizon that feels therapeutic.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Jeepney, the new Xe Ôm

I can't go on with this blog without comparing my experiences in Vietnam with those in the Philippines. I know, I know - I am not even there yet. But part of my preparation is about researching what life is like there.

In doing some research, I came across the Jeepney. An odd jeep/truck contraption that serves as an informal mode of public transportation. 

Whereas in Hanoi I would have to negotiate price with a motorbike taxi  - a xe ôm, I guess the equivalent would be hopping onto a Jeepney. So instead of awkwardly trying to keep a safe distance between me and my (often) drunk xe ôm driver, I will have to awkwardly sit next to other passengers, and wonder if my change from the ride will ever make it back to me.

Check out this Youtube video about how to use a Jeepney:

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Next Floor: The Philippines

No. It's not the Philippines. But I had to put a picture to make this post a bit less boring

My original plan was to publish my last attempt at a blog post: a post where I confusingly went back and forth trying to decide whether or not I should apply for a masters.

Well... you don't have to suffer through that, as I must have accidentally deleted it! And neither do you have to suffer through endless posts about studying Community Economic Development, because I am just about done the program.

I have spent the last year uncertain of what my future holds and insecure about the decision I made to come back to Montreal.

Next month I head to the Philippines for a 6-month placement. A new country and a new culture. 

As I will be once again working in an office after over a year of absence, expect to read lots of blog posts that I write while at work. Got to look busy, you know.

Monday, March 29, 2010

On Turning 25

I am writing this on a plane between Saigon and Hanoi. This weekend marked my 25th birthday. I am now a quarter of a century old. Despite the weeks leading up to my birthday being some of the busiest of my life, I've been able to think and realise a bit about what it means to be 25.

First off, it means birthdays are really not that important anymore. More exciting and more urgent things come first. Like your job. Hence having to work this weekend. I can no longer have my mom write me a sick note .

It also means I am an adult now. I can stop pretending to be mature, composed and proffesional in everyday situations, especially at work. I've realised the majority of other people are also pretending. Although other people around my age and older seem to know what they are doing, this is a lie. They are just as lost and confused as me. I bet even my dad doesn't know what he's doin sometimes. 

I have no more excuses for not doing things in my life. I can especially no longer say I'll save it for when I'm older. For instance, playing sports. I have never been into playing sports, and it is very unlikely I'll ever start. My parents must have put me in every kind of sport as a kid:  tennis, soccer, swimming, even figure skating. I need to except that I'll never be that into sports. Same thing for playing an instrument. I'll probably never play an instrument in my life.

People can no longer say I am too young to know what love is. I think by this time in my life I can say I have experienced what love is.... And what it isn't. I just am not sure If it's turned out to be as easy as I thought.

I am not going to grow out of anything anymore. Like my big italian nose. I don't think my face is suddenly going to grow proportionately to my nose between the age of 25 and 30. I also will always have that soft layer of flesh under my skin. Yes, the one that has elicited comments such as " you look so skinny but your skin is very fatty" ( got to love the honesty of the Vietnamese people). I need to accept that my looks are only going to go down from here.

However I am not accepting that it's downhill from here. Just because i havent done something ive wanted to do by now, doesnt mean i still cant try. Its just trying is a lot more difficult. 

I have been the happiest I have ever been lately. I am experiencing things about the world, and in turn about myself, that are invaluable. Life is becoming less about freedom and ignoring the consequences, but developping friendships that will outlast any particular stage in my life. It's become about learning how to live to make sure I am still happy when I'm 30, because my needs and values will have changed by then...

Let's just not talk about my 30s for another 5 years, ok?

Friday, March 5, 2010

Gratuitous Video Scene #8: Bus in Java, Indonesia

During our trip in Java, Smorg and I took a diverse array of transportation: motorbike, train, bus, bemo, minibus, ferry.

In what seems typical of public transportation, at every stop along the way a parade of people selling things come onboard. They then proceed to constantly try and sell you something while you are both trapped on this moving vehicle. They will actually throw the product in your lap, where you can examine it for a while. They will then come back and either take the item back or you give them the money. Snake fruit, pens, Muslim prayer sheets, doughnuts, fried tofu, magazines, you name it, they sell it. Every now and then I would wake up in a drowsy state as 10 people would storm through the bus throwing things into my lap, while my head spun between reality and sleep.

Most interesting are the musicians that also hop on between stops. Guitar, percussion and singing fill the bus. For bus-singers, their voices were quite good, and it was a welcome change from the hard selling.

Sunday, February 28, 2010

Java, Indonesia!

If you were wondering why I hadn't updated my blog, it's because I went to Singapore and Indonesia for the Lunar New Year. The original plan was to head to Philippines, but prices quickly skyrocketed heading that way, and the cheaper option was Indonesia via Singapore. I had been to Bali before, but regretted not heading to Java during the 10+ days I was there. This was my second chance.

After booking the tickets, Smorg and I figured out it was actually the rainy season in Indonesia. Realising the original Philippine plan may have been worth it, we just made sure to pack extra socks and our heavy duty rain ponchos.

The "rainy" turned out to be alright. We only got caught once in a torrential rainfall, but it soured our shoes for the rest of the trip. Literally, we transported our rank-smelling shoes with us all across Java never having the opportunity to stay in one place long enough to let them dry.

Some photos from Indonesia.

We did a jungle trek in Pangandaran, West Java. Monkeys and barking deer.

The Green Canyon in Pangandaran. In the rainy season, its brown. We then jumped into the fast water. I have only a few bruises from hitting rocks. 

Random bamboo bridge. Near Pangandaran.

Borobudur, in Central Java. This Buddhist temple was discovered under a dense jungle a couple hundred years ago. A relict of Indonesia's Buddhist past.

Stupas of Borobudur. Smorg and I had about 3 hours of sleep before coming here.

Bromo Tengger Semeru National Park, at sunrise. To the right is an active volcano.

Bromo Tengger Semeru National Park, at sunrise.

Steaming Mount Bromo. In the background is Mount Batok. Mount Bromo last erupted in 2007.

Smorg and I walked all around the rim of the volcano. It wasn't so difficult, but we had to turn around and backtrack about an hour, because we reached a spot that my grip-less fake Louis Vuitton shoes wouldn't handle. My real shoes were tied up in a bag smelling awfully like mouldy sea water and cat pee.

Sunday, February 7, 2010


My wrist has been hurting me for quite few months now, and in the last week it has gotten pretty bad. So bad, that I could not type or even drive my electric scooter.

My co-worker suggested to me I try her acupuncture doctor. Cheaper than "Western Medecine," I thought, why not? I had never been acupuntured (hehe) before, but definitely would try it.

The acupuncture doctor practises from the bottom floor of his home. It's about 4 metres by 5 metres, and is divided with a small wooden screen. He was really excited to have a foreigner come to him, and he was even more excited to know that I could speak a little Vietnamese!

The treatment lasted about 5 minutes, where he poked my wrist with the same needle a couple times, and massaged my nerves. You could imagine how great that felt. I told him I was dizzy, so he made me lay down. He then proceeded to feed me longans, not allowing me to feed myself. I was lying there on the hard bamboo table while an old bearded Vietnamese man fed me fruit. Next time, he told me I should eat before I come over.

It cost me about 3 dollars for the treatment, but I was kind of hoping for something a little more therapeutic. In the end, I decided to go over to Yakushi Centre on Xuan Dieu to try out their treatment. It was definitely worth it. I paid twice as much, but it lasted a whole hour. They even attached an electrical source and soft shocks pulsed through my arm and hand.

In the end my wrist is doing a lot better... But still having difficulty typing and riding my bike. As for the cause, apparently it is tendinitis.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Back to Vietnam by way of China... Part II

Here is my bit about my food experience in Beijing.

My first day started off with a rice congee, similar in name to the one here in Vietnam (called chao). It turns out the similarity stops there. The rice soup here, was yellow in colour, and was doused in a sesame sauce. It was a lot thicker and was a bit salty. I scarfed it down with a vegetable spring roll and some fried bread. I didn't eat for about 8 hours after this, so I guess it did the trick. I don't think I'd eat it again though.

One of the most interesting meals was at a Szechuan restaurant. I have had Szechuan in Canada, obviously, but nothing prepared me for this. On the first bite, the flavour was great, if not a little strange. Then, this odd feeling took over my mouth. A numbing sensation paired with an uncontrollable stream of saliva pouring out of my glands had me in a bit of a panic. It wasn't necessarily spicy (though my mom would definitely think so), as the numbing took care of that issue. It turns out there were about a million little Szechuan peppercorns decorating this dish, a peppercorn that contains a natural numbing chemical. I continued eating while proclaiming in disbelief how anyone could actually want to have this feeling. It took over almost my entire face, reminding me of how when you go to the dentist it often takes hours before you can feel your lower jaw.

No trip to anywhere in Asia would be complete without trying the staple street food. Sticks with fruits dipped in a hardened sugar syrup are everywhere in winter. The traditional fruit to have in this style is the Chinese Hawberry. It's a bit sour like a crabapple.  You can also get strawberries, and any other kind of common fruit.

I visited a small street that had a hundred different street food vendors. I skipped quickly past the seahorse-on-a-stick vendors and tried some Beijing yogourt. Not unlike any other type of yogourt, except you drink it in a ceramic pot with a straw. 

Right before catching my plane back to Hanoi I went for Chinese dumplings. Apparently Beijing-style dumplings are boiled rather than streamed or pan-fried. My companions and I got egg and veggie as well as mushroom-filled dumplings. Hao chu (or however you would spell delicious in Mandarin)!

Sunday, January 31, 2010

Back to Vietnam by way of China... Part I

For my way back to Vietnam from Montreal, I found a cheap flight to Beijing. I decided to take a couple days in China, before using Aeroplan points to get to Hanoi. I got a 6-month multiple-entry visa, thinking that maybe I would want to take another trip to Guangzhou for another shopping spree someday.

Somehow I got a reputation at work now, where everyone thinks I love China. I don`t love China. But it's true that not many travellers in Southeast Asia (or Hanoi) choose to visit China, opting instead for the cheaper countries in the region. Despite the fact that China is about 3 hours from Hanoi.

Still a bit jet lagged from the 11-hour time difference and the 23 hour voyage, I spent the first day exploring the Forbidden City. Judging by the amount of people in this Forbidden City (photo above), it's obviously no longer forbidden! I walked around the site with one of those recording devices you can rent, where some lady with a weird British/Chinese account talks about the history in an unadjustably high volume. I still can't believe there is a city of 13 million people with a winter climate similar to Montréal. I always gave the smallish population of Montréal the climate-excuse. But this seems to defy that, so back to the drawing board (is the French language the next best excuse?).

The next day I explored the Great Wall of China with my Couchsurfing companion. It was much more impressive than I had originally thought. Also, much more dangerous. Some parts of the wall had a steep incline and no steps. I had to hold on to a railing and slowly slide my body down. I don't understand how the Chinese would have been able to run up these inclines to attack the invading Mongolians. At that point I couldn't even figure out how I would be able to survive another kilometre... with steeper inclines in the horizon, and being to far in to turn around (this, paired with my fear of heights). I persevered. 

Friday, January 15, 2010

Back to Montreal - Aux Deux Maries

After skating I brought the group of seven people all the way to Aux Deux Maries, a cafe on the corner of Marie-Anne and Saint-Denis. I have always loved going there, if only to watch my non-vegan dairy-drinking friends indulge in amazing-sounding coffee concoctions. I just had black coffee, as they didn't offer soya milk.

Now that I'm no longer vegan (and ironically, they now offer soymilk), I am finally able to indulge.

I had a double espresso that was pulled through with an orange rind. Orange zest was sprinkled on top of the whipped cream and was dusted with cinnamon. Somehow cream or creme fraiche was incorporated into this.

They also roast their own coffee, offering a huge list of coffees from around the world.