Waste Collection

Colombian waste pickers called to re-invent themselves

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The Waste Picker Association of Bogotá (Asociación de Recicladores de Bogotá, ARB) is set to re-value the role of waste scavengers.

Together with other groups such as the Constitutional Court and actors belonging to the recycling value chain such as the Recycling Sector Pact, the ARB seeks to support waste pickers fighting for the recognition of their profession.

On account of their actions, the Constitutional Court now recognizes the role of waste scavengers along the waste management chain (‘the holders of an environmental role of high importance’), a recognition illustrated by a payment system instituted in March 2013 that remunerates waste pickers for their work within the areas of collection, transport and recycling. As of October 2014, 2,300 of 14,000 waste pickers were identified as beneficiaries of the system.

Millions of people, usually clustered around urban centres such as Bogotá, Medellín, Cali and Barranquilla, make a living from collecting detritus from streets and recycling it. In Colombia, waste picking devolved into a reliable if not enviable occupation in the wake of the 1950’s political uprising that saw many rural workers flee to urban areas.

Dr.Anne Scheinberg, a global recycling specialist and working group chair for the International Solid Waste Association (ISWA), said: “Waste pickers play an invaluable role in cities around the world. They are micro private entrepreneurs and they carry out work that wouldn’t otherwise be done.”

The Informal Waste Sector

Research shows that waste scavenging saves money for municipal authorities by reducing the amount of waste that needs to be collected, transported and disposed of. More than that, the fact that waste pickers recover materials already disposed of via the proper municipal channels helps extend the life cycle of the waste in question by preventing the loss of valuable materials to landfill.

Equally noteworthy is the fact that recycling rates in developing countries are generally higher than those in developed economies, with informal waste pickers being responsible for collecting 40% of recyclable material from the waste stream.

A policy of social inclusion within formal waste management as followed by Bogotá is more feasible and advisable in the long run than the marginalisation policy often adopted by formal governments.

Here, waste pickers are gradually upgraded to the role of private providers. Over a five year transitional period, scavenger organizations are given the opportunity to take on accounting management, route control with georeferencing systems and handle complaints and claims, among other requirements, in order to be at the level of a public service private company. Once they have accomplished all this, said groups are free to compete with private waste service providers.

As of now, formalization of the Colombian informal waste sector is at its beginning stage and progress still needs to be monitored but said progress appears promising for the establishment not only of a national but global circular economy model.