Latin American pickers: planting the seeds for ‘grassroots’ recycling

Written by: Editorial staff | Published:

Important efforts are underway to incorporate grassroots recyclers into integrated waste management systems in Latin America, according to a new report from The Economist Intelligence Unit.

The report, Progress and Challenges for Inclusive Recycling: An Assessment of 12 Latin American and Caribbean Cities, benchmarked the institutional and operational context for inclusive recycling in the region and analysed 12 cities in Latin America and their openness to including informal recyclers -sometimes known as waste pickers, or grassroots recyclers -into city-wide systems.

According to the research and despite a promising record in a few locations, a lack of data on inclusive recycling, weak organisation of local associations and low citizen participation in recycling are significant challenges in the cities analysed.

The study recommended formally incorporating recyclers into waste management processes through contracts or other mechanisms, and legally recognising their profession to advance their social inclusion.

Qualitative indicators

The study used a framework of 37 qualitative indicators to assess the current state of inclusion and the formal organisa­tion of grassroots recyclers into a city’s integrated solid waste management (ISWM) value chain. 'Inclusive recycling' is defined as those waste management systems that priori­tise recovery and recycling, and recognise the role of recyclers as key stakeholders, with a goal of bringing them into the formal economy. The study is intended to highlight gaps in the informal recycling process and encourage policy change.

The Latin American and Caribbean (LAC) re­gion is reported to have enjoyed sustained population growth and economic development over the past 15 years. At the same time, the region has under­gone a continuous urbanisation process, with 80% of the population now living in cities. This growth is said to have led to higher con­sumption and an increase in the generation of solid waste. At the same time, many low-income families routinely sort through trash on the streets, in open dumps and at other points in the municipal waste stream, searching for materials with po­tential resale value.

These grassroots recy­clers are said to be an important part of the recycling ecosystem - they contribute an estimated 25%-50% of all recycled munici­pal waste collected in the LAC region, according to UN Hab­itat, and the income they generate is an important source of support for their families. Grassroots recyclers also support municipal governments by ex­panding the service life of sanitary landfills, re­ducing transportation costs, lessening the need to extract new materials, and providing envi­ronmental and public health benefits, such as the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions. Yet, according to the study, they earn only about 80% of the minimum wage, while the intermediaries to whom they sell are reported to reap as much as three times the value of the recycling material, on average.

Formal incorporation

Estrella Peinado-Vara, senior specialist of the MIF, said grassroots recyclers should be incorporated formally into waste management supply chains if Latin American cities are to “transform their lineal economy models of ‘extraction, production and dispos­al’ to circular economy models of ‘reduction, reuse and recycling’”.

The report said São Paulo, the City of Buenos Aires and Bogotá lead the region in inclusive recycling. São Paulo is reported to stand out for its strong participatory poli­cy which transcends the local and national levels; Brazil is said to have made significant advances in this field over the past decades. The City of Buenos Aires is reported to score well for its well-crafted regulations, recognition of the service provided by recyclers, and the pro­ductive and organisational level of formal or­ganisations.

Bogotá, according to the study, has solid recycling regulations, and recycling organisa­tions have made themselves visible at the national level. As a result of their efforts in Co­lombia, grassroots recyclers are said to be recognised as providers of public sanitation services, and have a right to compensation similar to that of providers of non-recycla­ble waste services. Some cities have even incorpo­rated recyclers into their public policy processes by legally recognising their work or through direct contracting or fixed payments for services rendered. In São Paulo, the role of the 'recyclable material picker' is recognised in the Brazilian Code of Occupations.

A stronger voice

The study also analysed formal grassroots recycler or­ganisations in terms of their political influ­ence, internal and external representation, and productive capacity, and found that these are typically very weak. Finally, citizens in Latin America and the Caribbean are said to have little awareness of the challenges affecting grassroots recyclers and the social, economic and environmental bene­fits they generate.

The report was developed by The Economist Intelligence Unit and commissioned by the Multilateral Investment Fund (MIF), a member of the Inter-American Development Bank Group (IDB), as part of the Regional Initiative for Inclusive Recycling (IRR), a partnership led by the MIF, the IDB’s Water and Sanitation Division, Avina Foundation, the Latin American Re­cyclers Network (RedLACRE), The Coca-Cola Company Latin America and PepsiCo.

The report and accompanying benchmarking model are available free of charge at:

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