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The Rise of the Trash-Picker Collective, in Latin America and Beyond

Millions around the world are improving their financial lot by sifting recycling—and they're saving their towns in the process.
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Trash-pickers on the street in Lago Agrio, Ecuador. (Photo: Oxfam Italy)

LAGO AGRIO, ECUADOR — As the sky lightens from pink to blue in this gritty oil boomtown on the border with Colombia, vendors at the local campesino market set up baskets of pan de wawa, platters of fresh cheese, and heaps of mangos and bananas.

The waste-pickers are close behind, pedaling squeaky metal carts through the rutted streets. They’re among Ecuador’s poorest and most vulnerable: refugees from Colombia, victims of domestic violence, the illiterate, those suffering from mental illness.

A new co-op, the Asociación de Servicios de Reciclaje Amazonia Limpia de Nueva Loja (ASOSERALL) provides safety equipment, a uniform (snappy khaki vests and blue jeans striped with reflective tape), and a place where waste-pickers can safely and efficiently sort materials. The 33 members pool what they collect to command higher prices, and are united in a purpose beyond day-to-day survival.

“We’re helping the city,” says Juan Carlos Dulcey, a co-founder of ASOSERALL. The weathered 47-year-old’s cheerful demeanor belies the trials that he and his partner, Maria Graciela, suffered in war-torn Colombia before fleeing to Ecuador. “We’re preventing contamination of the rivers, of animals, the environment.”

Around the world, trash-picker cooperatives, associations, and unions are on the rise. From Argentina to Uruguay, India to South Africa, Indonesia to the Philippines, such groups are growing as they fight for bargaining power and lobby municipalities for access to trash.

Cooperatives help mitigate the health hazards and social stain that attend the picking of trash.

Sonia Maria Dias, a sociologist from Brazil, has studied waste-pickers for three decades. “As individuals, you have no power to challenge exploitative relationships. As a collective, you have one voice, and that makes a difference. People are searching for a different model that can counter capitalism.”

In developing countries, about one percent of the urban population—at least 15 million people—dig for recyclables. The environmental impact is sizable. In the cities of Bangkok, Jakarta, Kanpur, Karachi, and Manila, waste-picking saves each government at least $23 million per year. It lowers imports of raw materials and reduces the need for collection and transport of waste, as well as the need for disposal equipment, personnel, and facilities.

In many cities, waste-pickers sort through half to all of waste collection, at no cost to municipal budgets; these trash-pickers, then, are lengthening the lifespan of dumps while slowing the depletion of natural resources. It’s unlikely that these cities will adopt expensive, American-style recycling programs with bins and special trucks. “It’s much cheaper for a city to work with waste-pickers: less polluting and less energy intensive,” says Martin Medina, a waste management consultant at the World Bank.

The work is hazardous. A survey of waste-picker children in Faisalabad, Pakistan found they battled problems such as mosquitoes, sharp metal, broken glass, stray animals, feces, and medical and other kinds of toxic waste in the garbage heaps. Most of them had never worn gloves, and nearly two-thirds had suffered cuts and injuries. Fifteen percent had digestive problems, and 13 percent had skin diseases. A study of trash pickers in a dump outside of Ho Chi Minh City in Vietnam found that accidents and injuries were common, such as collisions with trucks and getting buried under garbage being unloaded.

The social stigma stings, too. Dulcey’s sons have been teased at school, called “children of the dump”—despite a change in municipal laws that now recognizes the work of recyclers and information campaigns that highlight the importance of their work.

Many used to consider trash pickers on par with vagrants and beggars, but public opinion is changing, Dulcey says. “We are honest people too. We want to work. We can love too.”

His family lives in a wooden shack by the cemetery. They start their days at dawn, making meals for their two boys before leaving to collect cardboard boxes from a factory that makes household goods. Then they trawl the streets, rest at midday, and return to recycling in early evening for another two hours.

The following day, co-op members sort through stacks of cardboard and bins of bottles, earning between $200 to $300 each month from recyclables, on top of their income from odd jobs doing laundry, agriculture, or day labor. To join the group, which was formed with the help of Oxfam Italy and the United Nations High Commission for Refugees, members must prove that recycling generates at least half of their income.

Two nights a week, Dulcey and Graciela clean shops at a local market until 1 a.m., and take home cast-off potatoes, cauliflower, and broccoli that she simmers with beaten eggs to make sudado, a traditional Colombian dish.

Dulcey and Gracia

Juan Carlos Dulcey and Maria Graciela. (Photo: Vanessa Hua)

Cooperatives help mitigate the health hazards and social stain that attend the picking of trash. “Uniforms, safety vests, and ID tags imbue a sense of professionalism and facilitate social acceptance as waste pickers move about the city,” write Marta Marello and Ann Helwege of the Federick S. Pardee Center for the Study of the Longer-Range Future.

As they organize, the workers likewise construct a new social identity by picking a name for their occupation that isn’t tied to trash and waste, according to Dias.

“The politics of naming matters,” Dias says. “It’s very important to help a given group get together and work toward their demands. How can you get people organized if they don’t see value in what they do?”

In Uruguay, they call themselves “classifacadores,” classifiers of materials, as opposed to hurgadores (“pokers”). In Argentina, they’re “cartoneros,” or cardboard collectors. In Colombia, scrap metal specialists are “chatarreros,” while those who seek out glass bottles are “frasqueros.” In Mexico, “buscabotes” collect aluminum cans.

Dulcey points to the lapel of his uniform, which is embroidered with the phrase “Gente Emprendedora” (Entrepreneur). “We want to touch the sky,” he says. “We are entrepreneurs.”

In time, trash-pickers who band together can move up the waste stream, negotiating with supermarkets, office buildings, and households to promote segregation at the source and avoid messy mixed waste (aluminum soda cans, say, mixed with egg shells, potato peelings, and the like). To make more money, co-ops in Latin America have branched into new lines of business, processing plastics to make brooms or construction pipes, or transforming glass into vases, art, and jewelry.

Co-ops may also offer other assistance to their members, such as child care for parents while they are working, as well as technical training on how to run their organizations, and, in some cases, health insurance and pensions. In Lago Agrio, classes in administration, accounting, trash separation, computing, and literacy are in the works.

Dulcey, who has a high school diploma, wants to study administration and to improve his public speaking. “I’d like to express myself better when I take the microphone. I’ve made mistakes, but from mistakes, one learns, right?” he asks.

Eventually, the Lago Agrio co-op may expand into cleaning activities at government offices, cleaning camps or separating recyclables from oil sites, and processing plastic to produce hoses.

In Latin America, many local co-ops have joined together to become formidable movements. In Ecuador, Red Nacional de Recicladores del Ecuador (RENAREC) works on behalf of more than 20,000 waste-picking families who want to be treated with respect and dignity and included in solid waste management policies. RENAREC has met with President Rafael Correa, who has pledged to improve the recyclers' quality of life via policies that promote social and economic inclusion; proposed measures include a line of credit at the National Development Bank to acquire machinery and to support infrastructure necessary to the co-op's work.

In turn, national movements have gone global. In 2012, Wiego, the workers’ research and policy network, convened waste-picker organizations from around the world in Pune, India. Countries with nascent co-ops, like South Africa, benefit from the lessons of long-running ones in Latin America.

In Lago Agrio, the co-op has changed Dulcey’s life and his family’s too. Though they live frugally, they can now afford a few second-hand comforts, such as a $60 television. They’re also saving up to buy new clothes for their children. “You know,” he says, “When kids wear new trousers, they are very happy.”


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