Improving conditions for Waste Pickers

by Michael Smith (Veshengro)

rag picker“The time will come,” says Marcelo Conde, a 40-year-old garbage sorter who has been digging through trash for recyclables for as long as he can remember, with some pride, “when 80 percent of the raw material used by industry in Uruguay will be recycled waste products”.

And, he may not far wrong and not just for Uruguay but everywhere and that is the very reason why it is criminal to destroy waste that could become a resource by burning it in incinerators. Zero Waste means reclaiming everything (that can be reclaimed) and then still some more and it does not mean “zero waste to landfill” which only means, in government speak, everything to incinerator.

Conde, vice president of the Union of Urban Solid Waste Sorters (UCRUS), works at the Felipe Cardozo Cooperative (COFECA), the biggest of the waste picker cooperatives that operate in the Felipe Cardozo recycling plant, the largest of its kind in the capital of this small South American country between Argentina and Brazil.

At the plant, the members of some 60 cooperatives sort through the rubbish dumped by around 30 trucks, of the 540 that dispose of 2,000 tons of urban waste a day in dumps around the capital, Montevideo.

An estimated 800 tons of household waste are processed daily by about 5,000 families in the capital, according to the latest official count in 2008.

But authorities say the real number is up to twice that, if non-registered waste pickers are included, while a similar number of informal garbage collectors work in the rest of the country, classifying and selling recyclables. (Montevideo is home to roughly half of the population of 3.3 million.)

Efforts to overcome the stigma of working as informal garbage sorters are a recent phenomenon in Uruguay, as in other countries around the world, and it must be done for those, whether registered or unregistered garbage pickers preform a most valuable service to society and the Planet. And this should, nay must, be recognized officially.

Unfortunately, garbage recycling and “energy from waste” have become such a huge business that many of the pickers that once did the job, such as in Egypt where the entire municipal waste collection service was informally carried out by the Zabaleen, which literally means “garbage people”, whose traditional occupation has now been made illegal as Cairo (and Egypt per se) have sold the garbage rights to the highest bidder, in this case some so-called waste management companies from the European Union.

During the 1973-1985 military dictatorship, "hurgadores", as they were called, had to sneak into the municipal garbage dumps to dig for recyclable materials, and many ended up spending a night behind bars as a result. But, things are changing. The ministries of social development (MIDES) and education and culture drafted a manual on the rights of garbage sorters, with the aim of protecting their ability to work and earn a living, while carrying out such an important task as recycling. And, in addition to that, many have grouped together in the UCRUS union and, with the support of MIDES, have set up cooperatives that are improving working conditions.

Many of the waste pickers are children and the children begin working at the age of eight on average, and half of the women working in the trade are already mothers by the age of 15. And, while this would be shocking to many do-gooders in the USA and the UK. Youngsters can be seen riding the horse-drawn carts used by most trash pickers. Although garbage sorting was already a family occupation it is easier for small children than adults to “dumpster dive”.

While we did not dumpster dive when I was a child picking the garbage dumps was an occupation we did carry out and I was in the depths of it – literally – from a young age. Waste management and recycling it is called today and it is all the rage but in my childhood the words were not known and it was a trade that had been carried on, in the same way as that of collecting scrap, rags, etc., from homes, for as long as anyone can remember.

In many countries of the world the waste pickers, or rag pickers, are not really valued and, in fact, this is also true of the rag and bone men in Britain and elsewhere, though they pick not just rags, are often the only real waste management and it is their labor that keeps valuable materials out of the waste stream and from being lost to industry.

Furthermore many not just pick and deliver recyclables to the dealers but also repair and rework the things they find to resell on markets, in the same way that we did when I was a small boy.

In the developed world, such as Britain, the USA, etc., the rag and bone men, or whatever they are called in their area, are seen no longer as an asset but as a competition to the municipal waste collection services and their recyclables sales, and also, as far as scrap metal collectors are concerned, as criminals often accused of stealing copper and other metals from infrastructure. And thus their work is being made more and more difficult with more and more legislation aimed at making their trades redundant.

Rather than doing it this we should treat our indigenous waste pickers in the same way as Uruguay does theirs and give them a status and not more and more legislation against them to make their work impossible.

© 2014