A Scrap of Decency

Among those suffering from the global recession are millions of workers who are not even included in the official statistics: urban recyclers — the trash pickers, sorters, traders and reprocessors who extricate paper, cardboard and plastics from garbage heaps and prepare them for reuse. Their work is both unrecorded and largely unrecognized, even though in some parts of the world they handle as much as 20 percent of all waste.

The world’s 15 million informal recyclers clean up cities, prevent some trash from ending in landfills, and even reduce climate change by saving energy on waste disposal techniques like incineration.

They also recycle waste much more cheaply and efficiently than governments or corporations can, and in many cities in the developing world, they provide the only recycling services.

But as housing values and the cost of oil have fallen worldwide, so too has the price of scrap metal, paper and plastic. From India to Brazil to the Philippines, recyclers are experiencing a precipitous drop in income. Trash pickers and scrap dealers in Minas Gerais State in Brazil, for example, saw a decline of as much as 80 percent in the price of old magazines and 81 percent for newspapers, and a 77 percent drop in the price of cardboard from October 2007 to last December.

In the Philippines, many scrap dealers have shuttered so quickly that researchers at the Solid Waste Management Association of the Philippines didn’t have a chance to record their losses.

In Delhi, some 80 percent of families in the informal recycling business surveyed by my organization said they had cut back on “luxury foods,” which they defined as fruit, milk and meat. About 41 percent had stopped buying milk for their children. By this summer, most of these children, already malnourished, hadn’t had a glass of milk in nine months. Many of these children have also cut down on hours spent in school to work alongside their parents.

Families have liquidated their most valuable assets — primarily copper from electrical wires — and have stopped sending remittances back to their rural villages. Many have also sold their emergency stores of grain. Their misery is not as familiar as that of the laid-off workers of imploding corporations, but it is often more tragic.

Few countries have adopted emergency measures to help trash pickers. Brazil, for one, is providing recyclers, or “catadores,” with cheaper food, both through arrangements with local farmers and by offering food subsidies. Other countries, with the support of nongovernmental organizations and donor agencies, should follow Brazil’s example. Unfortunately, most trash pickers operate outside official notice and end up falling through the cracks of programs like these.

A more efficient temporary solution would be for governments to buoy the buying price of scrap. To do this, they’d have to pay a small subsidy to waste dealers so they could purchase scrap from trash pickers at about 20 percent above the current price. This increase, if well advertised and broadly utilized, would bring recyclers back from the brink.

In the long run, though, these invisible workers will remain especially vulnerable to economic slowdowns unless they are integrated into the formal business sector, where they can have insurance and reliable wages.

This is not hard to accomplish. Informal junk shops should have to apply for licenses, and governments should create or expand doorstep waste collection programs to employ trash pickers. Instead of sorting through haphazard trash heaps and landfills, the pickers would have access to the cleaner scrap that comes straight from households and often brings a higher price. Employing the trash pickers at this step would ensure that recyclables wouldn’t have to be lugged to landfills in the first place.

Experienced trash pickers, once incorporated into the formal economy, would recycle as efficiently as they always have, but they’d gain access to information on global scrap prices and would be better able to bargain for fair compensation. Governments should charge households a service fee, which would also supplement the trash pickers’ income, and provide them with an extra measure of insurance against future crises.

Their labor makes our cities healthier and more livable. We all stand to gain by making sure that the work of recycling remains sustainable for years to come.

Bharati Chaturvedi, the founder and director of the Chintan Environmental Research and Action Group.