Circular Economy

Waste pickers boost the region’s circular economy

Waste picker separates trash in Colombia. Photo by Avina Foundation

The Latin American and Caribbean region is home to more than 4 million people who make a living by recovering and selling recycled materials. Most of them are low-income, independent workers, doing their jobs precariously and under harsh safety and sanitary conditions.

Despite the positive environmental contributions, they make to society—cleaning city streets, boosting the circular economy, repurposing and reusing non-degradable material, creating jobs for the poor, and fostering a culture of recycling—waste pickers rarely receive recognition from local and national governments for their public service, and lack the skills required to create a business model that can make their work sustainable.

In Colombia—as in many other countries in Latin America and the Caribbean—migration of people from the countryside to cities stressed local economies, and waste pickers emerged as part of the informal economy, in response to the demand for jobs.

“The cities were unprepared for new dwellers, and the formal economy did not have a way to absorb them, so they took advantage of what they had: they made use of the waste.” — Ricardo Valencia

“The cities were unprepared for new dwellers, and the formal economy did not have a way to absorb them, so they took advantage of what they had: they made use of the waste,” says Ricardo Valencia, Director for the Regional Initiative for Inclusive Recycling (IRR for its acronym in Spanish)—an initiative led by the MIF that brings together governments, corporations, and civil society to improve the lives of waste pickers across Latin America and the Caribbean.

Norah Padilla, director of the Recyclers’ Association of Bogota, Colombia. Photo by: Juan Arredondo/Getty Images Reportage

However, “if there weren’t recyclers picking up all that material, the problem of waste management would be far more difficult, for everyone, in all the countries,” said Norah Padilla, director of the Recyclers’ Association of Bogota, a Goldman Environmental Prize recipient and member of the IRR’s Colombian national committee.

Born into a family of waste pickers, Padilla began sorting through trash cans and dumps as a child, and at age 14 she started her legacy as a community leader. She has been involved in dozens of legal crusades to attain rights for waste pickers across Colombia.

Today, Colombia and Brazil are the only two Latin American countries to include waste pickers as part of their national waste management systems. But now the challenge has shifted, explains Padilla, from legal recognition to implementation.

Recycling plays a key role in the growth of the circular economy in Latin America and the Caribbean.

Opposite to the regular flux of a linear economy where things are taken, made, produced, and ultimately disposed of, a circular economy takes value from that which already exists. And its social and environmental impact is enormous.

Opposite to the regular flux of a linear economy where things are taken, made, produced, and ultimately disposed of, a circular economy takes value from that which already exists. And its social and environmental impact is enormous.

But, in order for this to happen, waste pickers must create business models that compete in the market, they need to better understand their customers, and organize themselves to receive payments. By building up their skills, waste-pickers may very well be on the forefront of a changing city paradigm, from linear to circular.

Through the IRR, the MIF and its partners (IDB, Fundación Avina, Coca-Cola, Pepsico, and Red Latinoamericana de Recicladores), are building technical capacities within local waste-picking associations and supporting them as they prepare to play a role in local waste management systems.

Waste pickers in Bogota, Colombia. Photo by: Jose David Martinez Mulford/ Recyclers’ Association of Bogota

In three Colombian municipalities, Valledupar, Bucaramanga and Popayán, the IRR is supporting the creation of high-quality waste management plans that include recyclers and can be replicated across the country.

Currently 80% of the region’s population lives in cities, projected to reach 84% by 2035, and as cities grow, so does the waste they produce. Thus the IRR, with its private sector partners, is innovating within city limits, reducing their carbon footprint, and supporting recyclers to work towards creating a profitable and sustainable business.

Thus far, the IRR is working in 16 countries, benefiting more than 17,000 waste pickers, and some projects include: improving collection, transportation and final disposal of the city waste in Guyana; promoting organizational and commercialization abilities of informal waste pickers in the Dominican Republic; and creating exchange opportunities between waste picking leaders in Central America.