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Waste pickers unite

Waste pickers the world over are turning trash into a new green economy

wasteThrow it away, we say. Toss it in the garbage. As a rule, most people like their waste to be invisible. Until recently, the people gleaning value from garbage were socially invisible, too.

But out of sight, landfills in developing municipalities swarm with people, scrounging for anything recyclable. In western cities, they can be seen filling carts with Dumpster finds. Whatever the name — catadores, waste pickers, binners, canners or Dumpster divers — these individuals are often poor, unskilled and struggling. Yet organized collectively, the waste pickers are the front line against the tyranny of trash threatening most metropolitan areas.

A 2012 World Bank study estimated that by 2025 urban solid waste will increase 70 per cent to 2.2 billion tonnes annually. A recent University of California study estimated we dump an average of eight million tonnes of what it called “mismanaged plastic” into the ocean every year.

Most of the so-called solutions to waste management (WM) add problems of their own: dump sites can leach chemicals and pollute water systems and incinerators and methane-spewing landfills contribute to climate change. On the other hand, worker cooperatives and micro-enterprises are ideally suited to manage waste collection, says a United Nations sustainability report. The values that govern all co-ops – commitment to community, self-help and an eye on the triple bottom line that considers social and environmental needs as well as financial health – are the same ones that make up a truly sustainable entity.

The co-op solution

If co-ops are integrated into the waste handling system, workers can provide a vastly superior service by sorting material before it ever hits the landfill. Waste picker groups hand le 50 to 100 per cent of urban waste collection and recycling in developing countries, says a UN report. “They do it in the most socially just way possible,” says Monica Wilson, North American program director for the Global Alliance for Incineration Alternatives (GAIA). “Success comes when waste pickers have banded together, built some political power and leveraged that power. They are paid for what they are doing – not just for the quantities they are selling.”

Waste pickers cooperatives need three things to really achieve success: a government partner, a vocal champion and support from the public and industry. Progressive legislation can inspire new co-ops and protect existing ones. For example, many regions in the developed world are imposing bans on food waste and other recyclables at their overflowing landfills. The Philippines was the first country to ban incinerators – a victory for waste pickers and for the environment.

The Boston model

In late 2014, when Massachusetts implemented its ban on foodwaste disposal, a Boston co-op saw an opportunity. Suddenly, restaurants, schools and hospitals – any enterprise that throws away one ton or more of food waste per week – would not be allowed to send it to the landfill. They had to find another alternative. That’s where Cooperative Energy, Recycling and Organics (CERO) came in.

Its Latino and African-American founders all had informal participation experience in recycling waste oil, bottles and cans. “Before they even had a business plan, they wanted to be a cooperative. They were coming at this as a social venture from the beginning. They wanted to create jobs for themselves but also create jobs for the community,” says CERO’s Lor Holmes, who was hired as a start-up manager but stayed on to invest as one of the five worker-owners.

Still, it took them two years to raise the money. Crowdfunding, a direct public offering and other measures brought in $200,000, allowing CERO’s operations to begin in October 2014. It’s already diverting four to five tons of food waste a week and delivering it to a composting service. “We see ourselves as the final step in closing the food loop,” says Holmes. It’s a winning proposition for everyone. The co-op creates jobs and services while it helps restaurants comply and save money, since heavy food waste constituted most of the garbage. Already, CERO has big plans for an eco-energy park to form a base for other new worker cooperatives.

Dirty politics

They say politics is a dirty game and nowhere is it dirtier than in the awarding of waste management contracts in urban centres. A job no one wanted to do that was left to impoverished waste pickers is now a lucrative opportunity for multinational corporations. For example, the leftist mayor of Bogota, Colombia was ousted last year after he cancelled private waste collection contracts in favour of a city-run system that included a new payment scheme for waste pickers.

In Cairo, Egypt, household garbage was traditionally handled by the zabaleen (“garbage people” in Arabic), a Coptic Christian group that billed residents individually for the service, raised pigs on the organic waste and recycled the rest. Although this system was cheap and convenient, in 2004 Egypt’s government awarded garbage contracts to large companies and billed homeowners automatically. Then, five years later( the zabaleen weathered another blow when Egypt culled all pigs (considered unclean in the Muslim country) and closed the slaughterhouses, citing fear of swine flu. Most felt the move was another indication of wholesale discrimination.

In the meantime, the contractors’ trucks were too large for the lane ways of Cairo neighbourhoods so they hired the zabaleen as subcontractors – at half the price. Finally last year, with the help of the Spirit of Youth Association, the zabaleen formed co-ops and micro enterprises that were officially recognized and reintegrated into the system.

A “pro-poor” partnership

Waste_Picker_iStock_000005015402_Medium_insetIndia’s first wholly owned cooperative of self-employed waste pickers has inspired other groups throughout the country. Located in Pune, near Mumbai, Solid Waste Collection and Handling (SWaCH) was created by trade union Kagad Kach Patra Kashtakari Panchayat (KKPKP). In 2008 it signed a five-year “pro-poor public private partnership” deal with the municipality to handle door-to-door waste collection. SWaCH – an apt acronym since the word means “clean” in the local language – collected user fees and managed composting and recycling activities on behalf of the city for about 400,000 households.

SWaCH is a prime example of the result of strong community action. “The integration of waste pickers in the city’s formal waste management system has given them a human face and credibility. Such a decentralized waste management model is a win-win for all,” says Pratibha Sharma, a former SWaCH program organizer who is now India coordinator for GAIA . Waste pickers can make $3 to $4 US a day, she says, lower than comparable jobs such as rickshaw drivers or street vendors, but an opportunity for unskilled migrants and women from marginalized castes.

Champions needed

Finding a vocal champion is vital for cooperatives. Nohra Padilla and her family came to Bogota to escape violence in rural Colombia and began waste picking as a way to survive in the teeming city of eight million people. Padilla, one of 12 children, joined in this activity as a young girl, later struggling to improve the welfare of these workers by organizing cooperatives. Recognized as the leader of the Association of Recyclers of Bogota, she won the 2013 Goldman Environmental Prize, known as the “green Nobel.”

Quebec’s valoristes

Marica Vasquez Tagliero saw the waste pickers combing the beaches when she was growing up in Sao Paulo, Brazil. She came to Montreal 20 years ago for university and stayed to work for the city as a recycling program manager. She quit to co-found Coop Les Valoristes (people who add value) to work for better deposit-return regulations in Quebec, one of only two provinces without deposit-return fees on wine and liquor bottles (Manitoba is the other). She set up a temporary recycling depot last summer to draw attention to the lack of facilities for the valoristes.

wastepickers_quote_bluebox“It’s been a fight here. Supermarkets and other groups have been pushing to get [deposit laws] abolished,” says Tagliero, adding that the group is a solidarity co-op, meaning it has both industry and individual members. “We thought, everybody produces garbage and everybody might have an interest for making Quebec a better place. It’s recycling for sure but most of all it’s a social enterprise helping people.”

Recognition by business, government and the public is the third measure of success. In South America and Asia, waste picker cooperatives have rad ically improved the living standards. Workers now have uniforms, identity cards, benefits such as social security and education for their children and protection from the police. Through global networks such as GAIA and the Global Alliance of Waste Pickers, cooperative members proudly gather for annual conferences while supporting each other.

Brazil has some of the most notoriously polluted dump sites in the world. Yet the country, which has more than 500 worker co-ops in the form of daycare centres, medical clinics and training programs, has produced some of the strongest waste picker groups. Brazil’s solid waste laws recognize the rights of the catadores and waste picking is listed as a profession in the official labour statistics. When Brazil hosted FIFA World Cup 2014, waste picker co-ops were contracted to handle the recycling at the 12 stadiums used for the soccer tournament. As the ultimate recognition, waste pickers were acknowledged on a 2014 Brazil postage stamp.

Creating healthy communities

In many North American cities where municipal recycling and garbage pick-up exists, cooperatives must compete with wellequipped private companies. Rather than acting as general waste collectors, they often specialize. For example, Sure We Can set up its own collection centre in 2009 as the only licensed, non-profit redemption centre in New York City.

While forming a co-op is a valuable way to empower a group and recognize previously powerless individuals, not all social enterprises need to incorporate using that business model. United We Can (UWC) , a non-profit Vancouver group created in 1995 that recycles beverage containers, recently signed a 10-year lease with City of Vancouver for an expanded depot – the Green Recycling Hub – sharing the space with the for-profit company, Recycling Alternative.

UWC founder and former executive director Ken Lyotier started the Binners’ Project and then handed over leadership to current director, Anna Godefroy, in 2014 as a grassroots group of binners or urban recyclers coming together across the country to increase income opportunities and combat stigma surrounding waste-picking. The Binners’ Project runs a one-day awareness campaign each year called the Coffee Cup Revolution, drawing attention to the amount of disposable paper coffee cups that are thrown into the waste stream and not recycled.

Creating healthy communities is the goal of United We Can’s credit union, Vancity (509,000 members, $22 billion in assets), says Maureen Cureton, green business manager for the credit union. Cureton points out that non-profits and regular businesses can operate using these co-op principles as well. For example, Vancity provided a start-up grant to United We Can . Now it provides credit and business banking services to the viable operation. “I don’t want to work to exclude those businesses but bring them into the fold and embrace those values,” says Cureton.

Cooperative principles are having a lasting influence on the way workers and businesses set goals in the waste sector. No longer are the workers invisible and the bottom line is colourful – green as well as black. ◊