A Focus on Informal Solid Waste Collectors in Haiti: Key players but Neglected Actors

By Mickens Mathieu, UNDP Haiti AccLab Head of Exploration

17 mars 2022

An informal collector in Saint Fort Saint Michel, Cap-Haitien. Photo: UNDP Haiti/Mathieu Fritzner

Under the law of September 21, 2017[1], the National Solid Waste Management Service (SNGRS) shares with the Local Authorities (Town Hall, CASEC, ASEC) the mission to collect, sort and transform solid waste throughout the national territory. However, these state agencies do not have sufficient human, material and financial resources to fulfill their mission. In slums, generally inhabited by low-income households, their presence is barely felt. Therefore is it not relevant to ask how solid waste is managed and disposed of in areas not covered by the SNGRS and the municipalities? In other words, who is playing their role or doing the work they are supposed to do in these areas? And under what conditions?

In urban areas not covered by SNGRS and municipalities, the garbage collection service is largely provided by informal collectors offering a low-cost service accessible to a large proportion of households as well as to formal and informal businesses. As a result, they are becoming an increasingly important part of the community of actors in the solid waste collection, treatment and recovery system in Haiti.

However, the contributions of informal collectors in improving the living environment, protecting the environment and reducing unemployment are not always recognized and duly valued. On the contrary, these collectors constitute a group of actors who are strongly affected by the negative consequences of poverty, prejudice, discrimination and social exclusion.

UNDP Haiti's Innovation Acceleration Lab wishes to highlight the important work of these hard-working individuals in the hopes of encouraging governmental and non-governmental actors to support them, improve their positioning, and bring about a change in society's view of their contribution to the solid waste management system in Haiti.

In this perspective, the laboratory has already carried out a mapping of solutions in the North and North-East departments of Haiti in November 2021. This fieldwork allowed us to meet and discuss with informal solid waste collectors working collectively or individually in the urban areas of these departments. These discussions made it possible to better understand their activities, their objectives, their contributions, their constraints and their opportunities. The information collected also allowed for a better understanding of the potential support to be implemented in order to strengthen their work in the North and Northeast departments and possibly throughout the country.

Understanding the usefulness of these multi-purpose actors: from direct collection from households to purchase, storage and wholesale resale

It is very difficult to accurately profile informal solid waste collectors, given the diversity of their activities, their spaces, and their intervention models, including their objectives, performance levels, and relationships with waste generators and recovery companies.

With regard to their main activities, pre-collection or direct collection is operated from producers of recoverable and non-recoverable waste, such as households, institutions, companies (restaurants, hotels), public markets, among others. In this way, the initiatives of informal collectors play a relay role between the producers and the intermediate or final dumping areas, controlled or not controlled by the municipalities.

The activities of informal collectors also include the recovery or purchase of recoverable waste (defective objects that can be recycled, repaired or reused) from households, streets, public markets and landfill sites. In direct connection with this last activity are the wholesale collectors who have small networks of collectors (individual or group) who supply them with recoverable waste, especially plastic, metal and organic waste, in return for remuneration based on the volume bought. There are other categories of informal collectors in Haitian urban areas, but they are not taken into account in the context of the present description. The organizational model set up by the wholesale collectors is at a very rudimentary level, although somewhat more advanced compared to other informal waste collectors. In this way, this may provide a good basis for initiatives to strengthen informal collectors into cooperatives, for example.

As indicated by the title, all of these activities are carried out in a totally informal context. Indeed, they develop outside of all forms of taxation, recognition and regulation by the public authorities. In addition, they are small in size, low in productivity and financial profitability. The people who enter this field of activity are of low socio-economic level and rarely reach the secondary level of schooling.

Informal collectors are poorly equipped with appropriate tools and materials that allow them to carry out their activities in the best physical and sanitary conditions. A very small proportion have motorized equipment. Most waste collection is done by hand or with rudimentary tools. The collectors hardly wear boots, gloves, or nose covers, even though they work in a dangerous and infectious environment. Moreover, they are not covered by any form of social protection. Understandably, they are vulnerable and marginalized socially and economically.

These elements suggest the need to support them given the specificity of their activities and their areas of intervention. This support can include the acquisition of tools, motorized equipment, training guides or manuals, social protection measures and other support necessary to carry out their activities. It is desirable that the costs of acquisition, renewal and maintenance of these tools and materials be low or financially accessible. All of this support will have a direct impact on waste collection, improving the living conditions of collectors and the environmental conditions in which the country's urban populations live.

A profession in search of recognition and social and economic value

The work and contribution of informal collectors is not always recognized and valued by public authorities and local populations in general. However, they play a very important role in the local collection of waste, often conducted door-to-door, in exchange for a fee based on the volume of waste collected. The presence of informal collectors is increasingly important in marginalized urban areas (or slums) characterized by high densification, poor accessibility to four-wheel vehicles, and a weak presence of municipal solid waste collection services. It must be said that for some time now, the emergence of pockets of insecurity in the working-class neighborhoods of the capital and of the countryside has considerably reduced the activities of informal collectors.

The waste collected by informal collectors can go in several directions: municipal dump trucks, specific collection points (illegal dumping) found in public markets or roads, ravines, banks, beaches, storage areas for recyclable waste, among others. This reality describes all the paradox that the activities of solid waste collectors carry, which can be described under certain conditions as a zero-sum game with regard to their negative effects on the environment and the living environment of the population. This same paradox implies that the impacts of the work of informal collectors would be much higher if the other upstream and downstream actors  of the chain were to do their work properly. In this way, the collectors will find it easier to dispose of their recoverable waste in specialized companies and non-recoverable waste in places reserved for this purpose. 

Promoting the activities of informal collectors also involves the implementation of initiatives ensuring their organization, structuring, training and professionalization. Also, informal collectors can be encouraged to formalize and obtain legal recognition and social utility from the municipalities. It would also be relevant to promote better partnership relations between these collectors and municipalities alongside waste recycling companies, especially those working in the plastic, metal and organic sectors. It is undeniable that recycling companies greatly need informal collectors to obtain the inputs essential to the production of goods sold in  national and international markets. We can also think of helping them gain access to microfinance, to ensure the growth, the balance and the financial self-sufficiency of their activities.

[1] http://ciat.bach.anaphore.org/file/misc/366_20170809.pdf