An estimated 20 million laborers around the world endure distressing conditions as they gather refuse and recycle materials outside of formal waste management systems. These individuals, known as waste pickers, can be found in Asia, Africa, Latin America, North America, and Europe, where they navigate through landfills, return cans to recycling centers, or collect trash in areas lacking proper municipal services.
Despite being responsible for roughly 60 percent of global plastic recycling, waste pickers are often overlooked when governments seek to reduce plastic waste. Many of these workers belong to marginalized populations, including undocumented, homeless, low-caste, and low-income communities that face significant challenges such as crime, poverty, mental illness, and systemic obstacles.
Waste pickers also face harassment from both police and citizens, as certain regions perceive collecting materials from dumpsters or streets as theft. This societal stigma and socioeconomic exclusion serve to conceal the valuable economic contributions made by waste pickers.
Since the early 1990s, some waste pickers have been raising their voices, demanding improved remuneration and social safeguards from local governments. Now, their cause has gained urgent significance. The global plastics treaty, along with local regulations, is seen as an exceptional opportunity to revolutionize our approach to plastic. Although the specific obligations of the treaty are still uncertain, potential measures include implementing caps on plastic production and phasing out toxic chemicals in plastic products.
As municipalities strive to enhance recycling rates, they may enlist private companies, inadvertently excluding waste pickers without prior consultation. For many waste pickers, this work became a necessity due to the absence of alternative employment opportunities. Losing access to plastic waste could jeopardize their sole means of income.
To ensure a fair transition, waste pickers and their advocates need support. The first step towards a just transition is for governments to acknowledge the significance of waste pickers' work, which is often rendered invisible. This acknowledgment entails actively involving waste pickers in the transition process and providing contracts, compensation, and benefits.
Some workers may seek integration into formal waste management systems, while others prefer to maintain their autonomy. Both groups strive for job security as plastic economies evolve, encompassing roles such as sorting, driving, and assisting at new recycling facilities, or securing reliable channels to sell their collected materials. As individuals directly affected by plastic pollution, waste pickers also advocate for policies ensuring that all plastic produced is ultimately recyclable, thereby eliminating the need for incineration.
It is imperative to recognize the invaluable role played by waste pickers in managing plastic waste. Governments must acknowledge their contributions, actively engage them in the transition process, and provide fair compensation, social protections, and job security. Let us not overlook their efforts but rather work collaboratively towards a sustainable and equitable future.
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