Tag Archives: scavengers

A Dirty Business: Recycling Other People’s Waste

Across India, from poor villages to expensive residential areas of cities, millions of trash pickers are at work to collect what other people dispose. They are called raddiwalas, ragpickers, scavengers and waste managers. Some go door-to-door, others gather iron rebar and used bricks on construction sites, still others clean parks and city streets. There are even specialists who gather hair, which is exported in bulk for wigs.  They’re the starting point of a multilayered, $25 billion industry in India that advances through increasingly specialized middlemen and industrialists to eventually turn garbage into new objects. The work is a moneymaker for conglomerates as well as a route out of poverty for some of India’s poorest people.

All of that has been upended by a crash in a global garbage market dominated by two players: China, which buys most of the world’s garbage, and the U.S., which sells the most. Last year, China dramatically cut the amount of garbage it buys. The reduced demand from China and continued supply from the U.S. flooded the world trash market and drove down the price of garbage everywhere….Indian recycling companies took advantage of the deep discounts and started importing more trash from the U.S. and elsewhere. In 2018, the imports of mixed scrap plastic to India rose 33%.  The jump in supply pushed prices down for the low-end Indian workers who pick through mountains of locally produced trash for raw materials to sell.

That’s impacting an Indian trash economy powerful enough to have prompted its own migration pattern: thousands of families left their rural villages to collect garbage in cities. Now, with their garbage hauls worth less, many are returning home.  For the pickers, the going price for a kilo, or 2.2 pounds, of plastic water bottles, which used to bring around 45 rupees—roughly 65 cents—is now worth only about 25 rupees—or 36 cents.The trash glut also lowered profits for industrial recycling companies who turn the trash into usable materials. Plastic pellets, the end-product after processing some plastic scrap, went from 80 rupees to 45 rupees a kilo.

China  ratcheted up restrictions on imports of recyclable materials to force its recycling industry to absorb more of the waste generated within the country. China also is nudging the country away from the role of accepting others’ garbage, which is viewed as a dirty industryThe global trash glut means India’s own trash is worth less to its domestic recyclers.

Excerpts from By Eric Bellman and  Vibhuti Agarwal, ‘We Are Swamped’: How a Global Trash Glut Hurt a $25 Billion Industry, July 28, 2019

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