2. Improve working conditions
Informal waste workers operate under dire and unsafe conditions. They often scavenge recyclables with their bare hands from waste bins or dumps that emit rotten smells and toxic fumes. Without basic safety and protective gear, injuries, respirational illnesses and allergies are common. Where waste contains harmful chemicals, workers are at risk of contracting severe, long-term diseases such as cancer, diabetes, or reproductive disorders. Safety training and provision of basic protection equipment such as gloves and masks can help to reduce work-related injuries.
Where conditions allow, governments should integrate informal waste workers in their formal waste management systems. A shift in the collection from bins and dumps to door-to-door in-home collection can drastically enhance informal waste workers’ working conditions. This requires government support to raise awareness among people and communities to separate at household level waste which can be picked up by informal waste workers.
3. Ensure fair payment and financing access for informal waste workers’ services
Currently, informal waste workers are paid through the recyclables they collect and sell. Their income is low and unstable, and does not reflect their contribution to protecting the environment from being polluted by plastic waste. Just like some local communities that are paid to conserve the Amazon and Congo forests to protect these global carbon sinks, informal waste pickers should be compensated for their global clean-up and recycling services that help conserve our oceans.
To finance the payment for informal waste workers’ services, governments should consider establishing a national fund with fees collected from producers through extended producer responsibility (EPR) approaches, based on the “polluter pays” principle. Taxes and fees collected from the use of plastics could also contribute to this fund for payment to informal waste workers.
4. Reduce types of plastics, and design products with reuse and recycling in mind
One critical obstacle to plastic recycling is the large number of types, additives and compositions of plastics. The complexity of different types of plastics makes it hard to separate and sort, creating unnecessary burdens for informal waste workers. Producers should be encouraged to limit the plastic types and additives to facilitate collection, separation and recycling. With reduced numbers of plastic types and additives, collection and recycling will be easier.
A call to support informal waste workers
UNDP has been supporting informal waste workers through its plastics and waste projects and programmes. In Viet Nam, UNDP provided waste collection tools and equipment including protective gear to informal waste collectors to facilitate collection activities and protect their health and safety. A revolving fund was established to provide financial assistance to informal waste workers in difficult economic and social situations with limited to no interest rates. Elderly people, who are not able to work anymore gain access to provincial social protection centres for support including food, shelter and healthcare. UNDP is seeking partners to further scale up our support to informal waste workers and support countries to build inclusive and effective waste management systems.
Current efforts to support informal waste workers are far from adequate. Our societies don’t recognize and fairly pay them for their valuable contribution. Following the principle of “leaving no one behind”, let's be their champions and create just and inclusive societies. We need all key stakeholders to stand behind this group of people: policymakers to integrate them in sound decision making, scientific community to quantify and provide evidence of their contributions, and civil society organizations to advocate on their behalf.
Next time you see informal waste workers, remember they are the guardians protecting people and planet, and say “thank you” to them for their valuable work.