Informal Waste Management Sector : Waste Pickers at the Forefront of a Global Just Transition and Plastic Treaty Movement

picker, informal, in, recyclables, dumpster, waste, recycler, wastes, and, clasificador, rag, dump, scavenger, collection, binner, poacher, spanish, diver, minador, salvager, reciclador, pepenador, garbage, collector, recoverer, cartonero, resource, reclaimer, chatarrero, burning
© aryfahmed -

The global production of municipal solid waste has witnessed a substantial increase in recent decades, and this trend is expected to persist without prompt intervention. It is estimated that municipal solid waste production will increase from 2.3 billion tonnes in 2023 to 3.8 billion tonnes by 2050. In 2020, the worldwide direct expenditure on waste management was approximately USD 252 billion (UNEP & ISWA, 2024). This surge is attributed to factors such as rapid population growth, urbanization, economic expansion, evolving consumer purchasing patterns, and the aftermath of disasters like floods, earthquakes, and cyclones. Addressing the escalating waste volumes has and should become a pressing concern for authorities worldwide, emphasizing the crucial role of material efficiency and efficient waste minimization and end-of-life management. For which, the informal waste sector and particularly waste pickers have been playing an instrumental role and significantly influencing economic, social, and environmental dynamics of circular economy and waste management altogether.

Related article: First draft for global agreement against plastic waste

The Role of Waste Pickers

Presently, an estimated 19-24 million people worldwide derive their incomes from collecting and recycling waste. Roughly 0.5-1% of the global workforce is involved in this crucial yet often undervalued profession, with 80% of waste collectors operating within the informal economy (Fair Circularity Initiative & Systemiq, 2024). On the contribution spectrum, it is estimated that the informal sector contributes to the collection and recovery of approximately 58% of the world's plastic waste (UNEP, 2023). Waste pickers play a pivotal role in diverting materials, thereby saving substantial costs (both economic and emission-related) in waste management. Socially, the informal sector provides essential services to the urban poor, acting as a source of livelihood for marginalized groups and aiding poverty reduction (Aslam et al., 2021).

From an environmental standpoint, waste pickers contribute to the prevention of waste in landfills, engage in resource recovery, and display a diverse range of materials recycled. Their activities extend the lifespan of landfills and respond dynamically to market signals, recovering materials that were previously considered of little value. Public health benefits are derived from waste pickers' substantial contributions to waste collection, prevention of toxic material in landfills, and participation in pollution prevention efforts. Nevertheless, challenges exist in terms of physical health risks due to exposure to hazardous waste and the prevalent issue of child labour within the sector.

Despite the importance of their contributions, informal waste pickers and other individuals within the plastics value chain are not adequately acknowledged at both national and local levels. Their work is marked by precarious and unhealthy working environments, inconsistent or low earnings, extended working hours, and a deficiency in access to essential resources such as information, markets, financial support, training, and technology.

Related article: Rags to Riches? The Urban Waste Management in India Saga

Despite the importance of their contributions, informal waste pickers and other individuals within the plastics value chain are not adequately acknowledged at both national and local levels.
Shiza Aslam

As countries continue to advance economically and face increasing pressure to adopt sustainable practices, the role of waste pickers in contributing to circular economy and solid waste management becomes more pronounced. However, the lack of comprehensive data on waste pickers often results in government responses that are non-inclusive or inadequately address essential indicators crucial for sustainable growth and circular economy initiatives. To effectively address these challenges and align with the goals of the Global Plastics Treaty, countries must deepen their understanding of the complexities of the waste management landscape, including the role of social protections and networks, as well as the concept of a living income for waste pickers. This deeper understanding not only serves to advance the human rights agenda but also enhances the resilience of waste systems, ultimately improving their overall efficiency and contributing to sustainable development goals.

The Situation of Waste Pickers in Pakistan

Pakistan’s experiences exemplify the just transition and inclusive circular economy and plastic pollution challenges. Pakistan’s municipal solid waste management footprint stands at 30 million MT of waste per day in 2023, based on characterizations majority of this is organic waste (ADB, 2022). Therefore, it is important to consider the 'parallel economy' working in tandem comprising of materials like paper, plastics, metal, and glass which comprises more than 2.2 million MT of plastic as an example (IFC, 2023). With an assumption that waste pickers across the waste value chain, reclaim 13% of recyclables from MSW (Aslam et al., 2021).

A recent case study conducted in three major cities of Pakistan—Karachi, Lahore, and Muridke—sheds light on the lives, challenges, and contributions of these individuals who navigate the labyrinth of waste to earn their livelihoods (Aslam et al., 2024). Today, an estimated 200,000 to 333,334 individuals across Pakistan are associated with waste picking, earning their livelihoods collecting, recovering, and sorting waste.

In Pakistan's waste management landscape, waste pickers assume diverse roles across various stages and streams of the waste stream. From collecting and sorting waste at its source to salvaging valuable materials from landfills, waste pickers contribute significantly to the informal waste management ecosystem. They serve as collection service providers, barterers, and itinerant buyers at the source, while street, transfer station, and landfill waste pickers play pivotal roles in separating saleable components and selling them to dealers. Navigating territorial boundaries and power dynamics, waste pickers often find themselves at odds with other waste service providers and authorities. While some interactions foster learning and shared experiences, conflicts and disputes are not uncommon, underscoring the complexity of relationships within the industry.

The cultural context, social norms, and not-so-spoken realities of country and neighbourhood influence and shape waste pickers communities as well, as we see in Pakistan. The waste-picking industry in Pakistan is predominantly characterized by family and micro-enterprises, serving as a livelihood option for marginalized groups, individuals with limited education, and minorities. During economic downturns, individuals not traditionally associated with waste picking turn to it in the face of unemployment. As one street picker shared “I used to be a gardener but got laid off from my job and there is no other job for me. Therefore, picking waste”. Despite facing challenges such as social stigmatization and informal employment, waste pickers remain integral to sustainability efforts, highlighting the need for their recognition and integration into formal waste management systems.

With low barriers to entry, especially in street waste picking, individuals and families often engage in this occupation across generations, creating a network deeply intertwined with social background and economic circumstances. Nonetheless, the working conditions pose challenges, due to lack of occupational safety measures, precarious waste disposal practices and. The lack of protection and changing weather adds to the adversities, particularly during high temperatures, floods, and inadequate access to shelter and water. As shared by one of the waste pickers: "During the summers, it is very difficult to work under the heat hence we can only work for fewer hours then. It is very difficult to work under these conditions. After one round we search for water”. This is further exacerbated due to chronic issues of harassment and security threats to the relentless burden of heavy workloads and lack of paid leave (in case of waste pickers employed or formalized in some cases).

© Tinnakorn -

No social Protection

In terms of social protection, waste pickers lack access to formal mechanisms, relying on Kabariwala (i.e., junk dealers or middlemen) for loans and financial aid. Limited awareness of government schemes and dependence on informal support networks are prevalent – this raises questions and concerns for commitments to be made under the UNEA Plastic Treaty. Few organizations engage with waste pickers due to existing laws, and trade unions' role is limited, with changing waste systems impacting pickers' operations through urbanization, commercialization, seasonality, contracting, and changes in waste management practices. As waste systems transform, waste pickers increasingly find themselves navigating uncertainties brought forth by urbanization, population growth, and changing waste management practices. While some opportunities emerge in underserved areas, others fade away amidst regulated waste management and commercialization, reshaping the landscape of the industry. To read more about the Pakistan case study see here.

In the global effort to address plastic pollution and promote sustainable waste management practices, the Plastic Treaty stands as a beacon of hope. By linking local realities, such as the experiences of waste pickers in Pakistan, to broader commitments outlined in the Plastic Treaty, we can bridge the gap between global policy frameworks and grassroots initiatives. As we navigate the complexities of waste picking, let us not forget the overarching goals of environmental stewardship and social justice that underpin the Plastic Treaty, weaving a narrative of sustainability that encompasses all voices, including those of waste pickers.


ADB. (2022). Solid Waste Management Sector in Pakistan: A Reform Road Map for Policy Makers (0 ed.). Asian Development Bank.

Aslam, S., Ali, M., Syed, A. (2023). Mapping the Landscape of Waste Pickers in Pakistan: Challenges, Opportunities, and Organizational Strategies. Global Alliance for Waste Pickers.

Aslam, S., Ali, F., Sheikh, Z., & Naseer, A. (2021). Application of material flow analysis for the assessment of current municipal solid waste management in Karachi, Pakistan. 40(2), 185–194.

Fair Circularity Initiative, & Systemiq. (2024). A living income for the informal waste sector: A methodology to assess the living income of waste workers in the context of the Global Plastics Treaty. Fair Circularity Initiative and Systemiq.

IFC. (2023). Plastic Circularity's Market Assessment in Pakistan. Final Workshop

UNEP. (2023). Topic Sheet Just Transition.

UNEP, & ISWA. (2024). Global Waste Management Outlook 2024—Beyond an age of waste: Turning Rubbish into a Resource. United Nations Environment Programme, & International Solid Waste Association.