Communities in developing nations are often a vital part of creating a global circular economy where discarded or used items are repurposed to be recycled and sold. But sometimes working conditions are not ideal for workers and their family members.
During Circularity 21 last week, Work Executive Director Vivien Luk led a conversation with experts in community recycling and circular economies to discuss why large companies and organizations should learn to work with communities that collect and repurpose waste to improve working conditions and foster innovation.
Luk used First Mile, an initiative between Work and its sister company Thread, as an example of the importance of partnering with waste collecting communities to increase volume and opportunities for both the company and the workers who collect and repurpose the waste.
“First Mile is our initiative to work in waste collection communities to address transparency and traceability of waste supply chains by putting together programming to ensure remediation strategies," she said. "[We are] ensuring that there's dignity and quality and equity in those waste supply chains."
Richardson Antoine, impact manager at First Mile, explained that in order for both parties to benefit from working together, both parties need to work within a structure that is fair and supports everyone’s needs. Organizations such as First Mile provide connections between companies worldwide and plastics collecting communities around the world to create textiles out of recycled plastic.
[We] ensure that their livelihoods are being improved by way of the waste collection strategy. There’s a lot of the things that we see that are human rights issues — forced labor child labor, unsafe working conditions, etc.
"We make sure that the collector has the mentor that they need," he said. "The coalition is all over the world, so it’s difficult for everyone to work together — we [First Mile] make sure that all the stakeholders and all the people who are working hard get all they need day by day so that they can make their work better."
Knowing the communities’ needs
Luk emphasized the need for partnering corporations and organizations to understand the collection communities and to assess based on the individual needs of each group before intervening.
"[We] ensure that their livelihoods are being improved by way of the waste collection strategy,” she said. "There’s a lot of the things that we see that are human rights issues — forced labor child labor, unsafe working conditions, etc."
Adwoa Coleman, country manager for Ghana at Dow, agreed and explained that some communities needed to work in or near landfills to find materials to repurpose or resell, and other communities had to work through the pandemic in order to have an income. She stressed that it was the job of the partnering business or organization to learn about the factors affecting waste collectors before creating an action plan.
"As a partner, you shouldn't step in to try to change the way that they work — understand what their gaps are. Sometimes it's as simple as [giving] personal protective equipment," she said. "Sometimes it's [providing them with] support to actually move up in the value chain. Some of them have interest in moving from waste collecting to being aggregators themselves."
Repurposing for a brighter future
All of the panel participants felt that once given the right support, communities that repurpose and recycle waste could flourish and help create new forms of innovation for a circular economy. Antoine recalled how some collectors in Haiti that he worked with several years ago didn’t want to recycle certain bottles because they weren’t worth anything on the local market. First Mile saw the situation as an opportunity to use connections to find a market for the materials.
"Our partner [company] came in and they started to purchase these bottles, and then they doubled the price of these bottles," he said. "The collectors were able to make more money to take care of their families."
He noted that larger organizations and corporations that partner with waste collecting communities should strive for similar results — where the company engages in a sustainable practice but allows the waste collectors to meet their personal and financial needs.
"This is an example of the kind of partnership that is needed — having companies that really want to invest in the work of collectors… This is the only way that we can find justice for these people ... to make sure that we still have people support them... to put food on the table and move forward," he said.