Scavengers or Waste Pickers?

New UN guidelines published in 2013 have formalised the work of scavengers, Scavengers collect between half and all the rubbish in developing countries.  Their activities cut costs to cities, help the environment and reduce poverty….Schemes are afoot in the Philippines and Nepal. In March Colombia’s capital, Bogotá, became the latest metropolis to start compensating its 15,000 waste pickers for their services, paying 82,860 pesos ($44) per tonne of garbage collected.  Brazil made scavenging an official occupation more than a decade ago. Its 1m catadores have raised recycling rates for cardboard and paper to 90%. Co-operatives get grants to buy equipment and can short-circuit the municipal-tendering process. In Belo Horizonte, in Brazil’s south-east, workers transform beer cans and other junk into intricate jewellery for the city’s fashion-conscious. Their motto is “your trash is our luxury”. Catadores there can make 1,700 reais ($800) a month from recycling and craft-making, well above the 678 reais minimum wage.

The scavengers face stiff competition from private firms who use more sophisticated technology to make money from waste. Official disdain remains a problem, too. Corruption in municipal-waste projects rewards the highest bribe, not the best bidder. Humble and often illiterate workers struggle to prove their social, environmental and financial advantages.

Sonia Dias, a rubbish expert from WIEGO, a non-profit global network based at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government, says better links between the scavengers’ co-operatives are needed. Informal workers were “largely invisible ten years ago” she says. Now they are talking at international meetings. The Global Alliance of Waste Pickers, which unites co-operatives in Asia, Latin America and Africa, sends representatives to shindigs such as the Rio+20 summit last year.

Excerpts, Money from rubbish:Mucking in, Economist,  Nov. 2, 2013, at 65

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