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Friday, December 2, 2011

Down to zero

Captions: Marlen Charcon from Costa Rica with New England waste pickers; A truck-full of recyclables; Great slogans; l-r Manisha Desai, outreach manager at SWACH, India, with Mrs Sushila Sabale and Mrs Suman More;

Visit any dump site or landfill in the developing world and you will see people picking through the waste, alongside flocks of birds doing the same. Most of us who live comfortable suburban lives will shudder and turn away, either horrified at the desperation or repulsed by the idea of sorting through others’ grubby, messy leavings.

But we should not. We should applaud the waste pickers as strong and independent people who are making a living off our excessive trash – and as heroes in the struggle against climate change.

Waste pickers extend the life of landfill sites by reducing the amount of waste that needs to decompose; they reduce greenhouse gas emissions (GHG) from the landfill itself; they reduce GHG by making available materials that would otherwise have to be obtained from virgin sources (every ton of paper recycled means 17 trees left standing, for instance); using recycled materials is often less demanding on power than virgin materials, thus reducing GHG again; and on top of all that, the waste pickers are making a living, supporting their own families and even supporting other jobs (in the recycling industry) which would not exist but for their work.

Finally, consider this: “Recycling is one of the cheapest and fastest ways to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Avoiding one ton of CO2 emissions through recycling costs 30% less than doing so through energy efficiency, and 90% less than wind poer.” (, the website of the Global Alliance of Waste Pickers)

Talking to a meeting of waste pickers at COP17, Neil Tangri of the Global Anti-Incinerator Alliance asked “How many times has it happened to you that a stranger comes up to you and says Thank you for what you are doing, thank you for fighting climate change?” The answer, from an audience composed of South African Waste Pickers Alliance members and several representatives of international organisations, was loud shouts of “No! Never!”

On Day 3 of COP17, leaders of waste picker-groups in most major cities of South Africa talked about the obstacles they face and the solutions they need, and listened as Indian and Costa Rican waste pickers offered encouragement and practical advice.

Given the huge contribution waste pickers are able to make to mitigating climate change, it’s astonishing how often the same problems are repeated, over and over again: harassment by police and municipal authorities, lack of recognition for their role and active disrespect, being blocked from landfill sites and more.

Perhaps local and regional governments should take a long hard look at the science available on options for managing waste. On the one hand, you have the classic landfill site, in which layers of shale and clay and high-density poly-ethylene are used to seal the ground beneath pits which will hold strata of waste. This will ultimately be sealed over, and, according to international standards of best practice, will be rehabilitated with vegetation, while the methane gas which forms in the decomposing mound will be siphoned off to create electricity or be used for cooking. Alternatively, waste can be incinerated, but this, of course, has environmental impacts and should, ideally, be a last resort (and incinerators used to generate electricity emit more CO2 than coal-fired power plants).

Waste pickers, on the other hand, are a very efficient method of reducing waste to – well, it sounds like wishful thinking to say to zero, but that’s the promise we were made by Mrs Suman More from Pune, the eighth largest metropolis in India (it’s in the same state as Mumbai). “We are confident that we can recycle ALL the waste which is generated – except waste which cannot be recycled at all,” she says firmly. She brings years of hands-on waste-picking and organising among waste pickers to bear when she speaks.

Human beings are by far the best ‘machine’ for doing this work, she said on a field trip to two local landfills. Our group was standing on a berm overlooking the New England Landfill outside Pietermaritzburg (the Msunduzi municipality), a small city close to Durban where COP17 is being held. We were watching a group of waste pickers pack a truck with a towering load of material they’d picked off the dump and were now taking to sell to companies which recycle paper, plastics and other materials.

Where the role of the waste picker is recognised by authorities, dry waste is reduced to a minimum in this way, while wet waste (organic and messy stuff like food) is separated before even reaching the landfill and used to make compost. (Since it decomposes rapidly and produces methane in the process, this can be used to generate electricity or cooking gas.)

Humans are highly efficient at picking out every last little bit of opportunity in the mounds of waste brought to landfill sites. Before we visited Pietermaritzburg, we’d explored the state-of-the-art Marianhill Landfill site just outside Durban. While the rest of us admired the beautiful and pioneering conservancy around the site, and the attractive green hill created by a rehabilitated landfill, Indian, Costa Rican and South African waste pickers were shocked to see all that recyclable waste being simply covered over!

The New England Landfill is a very different set-up. Of course it’s not a pretty sight, but dozens of people were still at work waste-picking in the late afternoon when we arrived, and they gathered around curiously. When they discovered that the international delegates did the same work, and had experiences to share, they were eager to hear more.

The Indian women, Sushila Sabale and More, talked about how they had fought for recognition 15 years. Now waste pickers have identity cards which entitle them to collect rubbish door to door, directly from householders (this makes separation less arduous), and they have their own shop selling recyclables, which has improved the prices they get for their materials.

“You must be organised,” Marlen Charcon from Costa Rica told the group. Having seen how it can help improve circumstances for waste pickers, she is passionate about uniting in organised groups, which can negotiate better prices with buyers and better conditions with waste site managers.

The manager at the New England site, Cyril Naidoo, listened with interest. He is a rare exception, a manager who, after 16 years on the job, appreciates the role the waste pickers play and sees them as human beings with a right to earn a living.

“It’s not good to work here – but we can support our families,” said Patricia Kheswa, a middle-aged woman waste picker at the New England site. There was general agreement that it’s not pleasant work, but it opens up opportunities. “Our children don’t work as waste pickers,” said More. Her children have all been able to study – one of them, she tells us, is a journalist. Her days of hard manual labour, which are reflected in her hands and face, have left a proud legacy.

Life should not – and does not – have to be so hard for waste pickers, in both the global north and south (wherever there is waste, there are waste pickers). If we all clearly understood the cost our throwaway society was extracting from the environment, we would be more respectful of their role, actual and potential, in mitigating that. And once we’ve recognised that, it’s surely does not take much to offer safer on-site conditions through simple equipment like heavy-duty gloves and boots, as well as some comfort in the form of, perhaps, ablution blocks and sheds for shelter? At the very least, we could refrain from harassing them and chasing them away from landfill sites. At best, as Naidoo hopes to do, landfill management could negotiate a safe and legal role for organised groups of waste pickers.

And at the level of COP17, waste pickers around the world would like official support for waste recycling (rather than the fashionable ‘waste-to-energy’ projects espoused by so many cities round the world). Carbon credits for incinerators and landfills just discourage recycling, they say. Waste pickers would like direct access to funding available through ‘Green Climate Funds’ to enhance their efficiency at recycling – and make the most of their ability to reduce GHG. Here’s hoping some of the bigwigs in COP17 are listening!

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