The Livelihoods of Waste Pickers

The generation and disposal of waste are some of the greatest challenges that the world faces in the 21st century. Reusing and recycling otherwise discarded waste are effective methods to drive environmental sustainability, reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and introduce raw and packaging materials into the economy. A “waste picker” is a person who salvages reusable or recyclable materials thrown away by others to sell or for personal consumption. An estimated 20 million people around the world work as waste pickers, collecting plastics, aluminum, and other valuable materials that have been discarded in our streets and dumpsites and selling them to recycling facilities. As plastic pollution has completely characterized entire regions and countries with massive landfills and plastic-lined streets, many in those areas sort through the waste and salvage any valuables. Waste pickers are predominantly those from low-income and disadvantaged communities, so waste picking provides these individuals with a strategy to earn a living while stimulating the recycling process.

Oftentimes, waste picking is the only way for these individuals to make a living, however, there are adverse health effects associated with the profession. By constantly wading through plastic pollution, waste pickers are exposed to the chemicals in plastic that is released into the natural environment as the plastic begins to degrade. These toxins, such as PAHS and PCBs, have been linked to asthma, cancer, and more. Furthermore, working with little societal or personal protection, informal sector waste pickers are highly susceptible to health risks and occupational hazards. Greater protection and recognition for waste pickers are essential, as they play a major role in the management and recycling of millions of tons of waste that plague our planet.