What is beyond recognising the informal waste sector?

March 11, 2021

Recycling shop in Tajoura

UNDP Libya/Osama Mansour

When I visited the Tripoli landfills for the first time, Masoud Tantoush, Tripoli’s management and recycling public company founder, looked at me and said: “these mountains of waste are treasures.” “The size of the informal recycling sector in Libya is huge and we only pick-up half of the recyclable materials dumped in the streets and landfills."

"It is highly likely that the sector can be upgraded to reduce waste and create jobs for young people," he adds.

The truth is that, the informal sector, which is neither taxed nor monitored by any form of government, makes up a considerable portion of Tripoli’s economic activities. Members of the informal economy collect recyclable materials and thereby cause significant contributions to municipal waste management. The more recycling the municipalities in Tripoli can put in place; the less rubbish goes to the landfill. Hence, the informal sector plays a part in resource conservation by recycling materials. Unfortunately, in Tripoli and the wider Libya, informal recycling is operating at a huge scale without being observed neither considered.

Due to the precarious economic situation, lack of investment opportunities, inadequate training, and a need for further cooperation with many municipalities, the potential in terms of sustainable employment opportunities within this sector are far from being exhausted.

Recycling shop in Tajoura. Photo: © Osama Mansour

What do we know about the informal sector in Libya?

UNDP Accelerator Lab initiative of solid waste management discovered that the informal recycling sector neglects necessary occupational health and safety measures, which further contributes to increased levels of environmental pollution activities such as the recovery of recyclables from electrical and electronic equipment. When establishing regulated waste management structures, it is necessary to consider the respective local conditions and involve the informal sector to create acceptance for a changed waste management system. Additionally, their integration into the formal waste sector could positively contribute towards an efficient economic system.

Every day, the Greater Tripoli produces nearly 2,737 tons of waste, containing up to 24% materials that could have been recycled. Although a large amount of waste is collected by people who make a living from selling those recyclable materials, the sector lacks a legal framework, and it is unseen and disorganised.  Despite the significant contribution the collectors make to the Libyan recycling sector, they mostly work without regulated contractual relations, without social, health insurance and in very precarious conditions. Additionally, during the COVID-19 pandemic, they work at a high hazard without any precursory measure.

From around the globe, there are already a few examples of how a structural integration of the informal waste sector into municipal waste management leads to better work conditions of the "waste pickers." Furthermore, it also keeps the urban environment free from materials which could enter the ecosystem and create an unsafe environment for everyone. Those highly sought-after materials can be found in electrical goods, they can be isolated from the street rubbish and sold to relevant buyers.

These goods ending in the landfill pose a loss in the economy and could create havoc in the delicate eco-balance.

The current informal recycling system goes through three main stages:

Stage one: Households dump their waste into the municipal collection points where the Public Service Company (public-owned) staff manages the site. During this phase, as the people dump their waste, the public service company's team segregate the waste. Afterwards the segregated materials are sold to the recyclable shops in an informal way.

Stage two: As Public Service Company delivers the waste into the landfill, random people and recyclable shops go to the landfill and collect plastic, paper, and glass as an informal activity.

Stage three: After cleaning and shredding, and within the informal sector, the recyclable shops sell the materials to private companies such as metal and plastic to ship abroad and sell the cardboard to reproduce products used in Libya.

What can the informal sector offer?

Better organization leads to a strengthening of the informal sector's ability to negotiate and represent its interests. Sustainable income opportunities create a financial livelihood for informal waste pickers. Recognition of the informal sector as an integral part of the waste management helps increase local waste management efficiency.

The idea behind the informal sector in municipal waste management is that by identifying and advocating to formalize the informal waste sector in Libya, particularly in Tripoli, a door can open for other players to participate. Also, it could bring new entrepreneurs’ opportunities to tackle challenging waste and fill these spaces to create more jobs where they are needed most.

If municipalities organize the informal sector, the operational cost of waste removal companies will dramatically drop. This means that not only the "waste picker" would benefit, but the waste management firms would also benefit as well as the municipal companies. More so, the environment would get a needed relief from man's waste.

What do we need to formalise the informal sector?

Municipalities can play a key role to mobilise the informal sector. The first step would be to integrate waste pickers into directly collecting waste at source, with a right over recyclables and a guarantee of regular access to landfills. The informal sector activities are highly adaptable, flexible, and able to respond quickly.

Other activities can support informal sectors' integration, including skills development, and managerial know-how and marketing to enhance labour-intensive small-scale activities' competitiveness. Integrating informal sector workers has the potential to better their living conditions significantly.

Insights and Learning

The informal waste services in Libya are not sponsored, financed, recognised or officially allowed by the formal solid waste authorities. And their motivation is to gain earnings through service fees or by selling valuable materials extracted from waste.

Suppose the decision-makers recognise the informal sector's contributions in reducing the volume of waste deposited in landfills, environmental pollution, creating local added value through the recycling market and the jobs creation. In that case, decision-makers may consider seriously to integrate them through a variety of formalisation approaches. Still, the road to successful formalisation is not always free of complications.

Recycling shop in Tajoura. Photo: © Osama Mansour