In many countries around the world informal waste pickers are part of the collection and recycling chain of waste. They cover a wide array of activities, from waste collection (solid and human waste), to street sweeping, sorting, recycling and recovery. Informal recycling activities are usually based on either separate collection from households or extraction of recyclable materials from the general waste stream - during collection, transfer or directly from the disposal site. The recovered materials are cleaned and then passed on for reuse, recycling or recovery. These steps are carried out by different people, creating an additional waste value chain.
Therefore, due to the informal sector, a significant portion of waste is collected and recycled at no direct financial cost to cities. Furthermore, through its activities the informal sector contributes to the extension of landfill lifespan, provides material for the global recycling industry and increases the quality of life in the areas the waste pickers work in. They are responsible for half to all of waste collection services in low-income countries, and for up to 45 percent of material recycling out of the total waste generated1 (which often amounts to all recycling and recovery in a city). In temporary settlements, where migrants often live, waste collection and management is a very important service. Raising awareness about waste reduction is an important contribution cities can make towards the migrant as well as the resident population.
Informal waste operations are mostly prevalent in cities in Asia, Latin America, the Middle East and Africa. In most of these regions, vulnerable groups, such as women, children, elderly, unemployed and migrants, represent the majority of informal waste workers. Although they comprise less than one percent of the urban workforce, estimates suggest that worldwide more than 15 million people earn their living through informal waste management activities. However, reliable statistics on the topic are missing, also due to the itinerant and seasonal nature of the work.
Although the informal sector contributes hugely to collection and recycling activities, its added value is still not acknowledged in many cities around the world and waste pickers are frequently ignored or harassed. As a result, they are often work (and live) in unhealthy conditions resulting in, for example, respiratory diseases, such as chronic bronchitis and asthma. The first step to prevent harassment, violations and personal attacks, as well as facilitating access to health services, is the recognition of waste-picking as dignified work. For this reason, two of the twelve principles of sustainable waste management promoted by UN-Habitat’s Waste Wise Cities Campaign and its members address the issues of empowering waste workers, their integration in the formal economy and the establishment of better working conditions for them.
An important step towards the integration of waste workers has been the formation of waste pickers’ cooperatives on a local, regional and global scale. By organizing themselves and speaking with one voice, waste pickers can interact in a more cohesive manner with for example local governments and become part of planning processes.
In recent years, technology has played an increasingly important role in supporting the work of the informal waste sector. Mobile applications, can connect waste generators, who need to dispose of their waste but have no access to regular waste collection, to waste collection service providers, who earn their livelihoods by collecting waste and preparing it for recycling. Another recent trend is to address two challenges at once, by actively engaging migrants (either newly arrived or returnees to their home country) into waste management activities. Examples include migrants turning waste into wealth on the Italian island of Sicily2 and Ivorian returnees contributing to waste collection