Waste won’t wait: How solutions which support informal waste pickers can start to clear the way now for a world without plastic pollution.

Globally there’s an estimated 20 million+ informal waste pickers. An army of recycling experts, picking their way through the rubbish discarded into the environment, as a result of a lack of organised collections, sorting and recycling. Discerning about where they place their effort, waste pickers choose the most valuable waste to collect, sort and redesignate. They are perfectly placed to rapidly respond to the anticipated global legislation changes that are expected to put more responsibility on producers to ensure their products do not end up as pollution.

How then could the expected Global Plastics Treaty appropriately include them in its thinking and solutions? 

Most waste pickers operate in countries and areas with little municipal collections. Many operate as individuals, but in countries such as Brazil, where BVRio has been working with the country’s Catadores for over a decade, many are members of cooperatives, working together with better conditions and pay to provide a vital clean-up service to their local areas. 

Organised and efficient, the co-ops have welcomed assistance to develop further and to expand their operations. For example, with recent funding from the Alliance to End Plastic Waste, BVRio assisted the co-op, Coopama, in Rio de Janeiro to scale up its operations by 300%, take on 50% more staff and expand its area of reach, within 12 months. The initial funding period over, the ongoing running costs are now covered by the new contracts gained, making the expansion sustainable and increasing the number of households and businesses benefitting from local collections. 

It’s also not just formalised waste pickers who can be mobilised to recover waste from the environment. In Rio’s Guanabara Bay three fishing colonies are now spending two days a week in the bay recovering waste. Unable to maintain their previous fishing schedule due to dwindling stocks, the fishers have embraced this new facet to their career, and within 12 months of work reported seeing improvements to the mangrove ecosystem and a return of wildlife. Imagine if this approach was rolled-out to fishing communities across the world! The group’s activities are currently funded by the Italian social enterprise Ogyre, and the plastic catch is recorded and validated by BVRio.

In order to improve their efficiency and social impacts, these projects have been formalised through the use of technology, which is playing a big role in delivering these kinds of approaches and ensuring that funding is properly channelled to the waste pickers. Working with waste pickers on the design, KOLEKT is the world’s first multi-material global waste management app, which brings together solid waste producers, collectors and recyclers. KOLEKT is in use in Brazil, Vietnam, Mozambique and Angola currently, and allows funding from various sources including from Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) contributions to be channelled directly to waste pickers.

As with a pilot project in Vietnam funded by Tetra Pak via PRO Vietnam, it is possible to use KOLEKT to incentivise the collection and recycling of specific materials, in this case used beverage cartons. This means that producers can directly fund the recovery and recycling of the specific material that they produce and, thanks to KOLEKTs global reach, also support collections in their individual countries of operation. Through the app, waste pickers can be notified of materials wanted and the price paid for their collection. Because KOLEKT was developed with waste picker input, the app also has functionality on simple phones and can even be used by pickers without a phone at all.

Along with measures to limit, and even ban single use plastic products, we hope to see specific measures in place within the Global Plastics Treaty which ensure that the solutions offered to recover waste already in the environment include the waste pickers who are ideally placed to manage it, and support the kinds of projects already in operation. If even a small percentage of EPR type funding was allocated to methods involving the informal waste sector, the environmental and social impact could be massive.