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.    

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