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Waste collectors are the heroes we’ve been waiting for

Here are some lessons from the planet’s best line of defense.

Close up image of a hand picking up a plastic bottle from ground

This article is part of our Paradigm Shift series, produced by nonprofit PYXERA Global, on the diverse solutions driving the transition to a circular economy. See the full collection of stories and upcoming webinars with the authors here.

We are in the midst of the greatest trash crisis in our history. This is cast in sharp relief against the horrors of climate change, unprecedented losses in biodiversity, and more recently, a global pandemic that preys, like all pandemics, disproportionately on poor black and brown people. All of this is currently lost somewhere within the loud-mouthed, hateful, spray-tanned folds of a body politic we’ve yet to figure out a way to unfriend. As a species, I’d say we have a lot on our plate. So, in the name of progress, now seems like a good time for some encouraging news.

Piece of good news No. 1: The solution is already out there

It is important to remember that the plastic crisis, more than any of the other crises listed above, already has a motivated army of experts hellbent on solving the problem before I walk my 9-month-old daughter down the aisle. And it’s not just all of us reading this.

While you scan this piece, at least 10 million humans are out there right now cleaning up the mess. They’ve self-organized incredibly elegant systems that in some places are collecting upwards of 90 percent of all non-organic waste. They’re doing it without subsidy or policy intervention. Most of them don’t use computers, and at least half of them don’t have smartphones. Despite their expertise at saving plastic from the oceans in the face of extraordinary odds, they likely never will join us at a conference about plastic to tell their story or sit on a panel as experts. Nevertheless, while we talk about assigning value to waste streams, since iron began trading on the scrap market, they have been the ones inordinately successful at creating value. They are the true heroes of the waste crisis, and it’s important we begin recognizing that more often than not, we are actually in their way.

Piece of good news No. 2: This team is field-tested and are already experts

Increasingly, we hear questions thrown around such as, "How might we formalize the informal waste-picking sector?"

These chains have their problems — the ones our First Mile team solves most commonly include predatory lending, child labor and unfair labor practices — but formalization is not one of them. Besides the obvious Manifest Destiny overtones, at First Mile we worry that talking about formalizing human-powered chains run by low-income men and women perpetuates a more modern and pervasive development stereotype: that the poor somehow require the adoption of a practice the rich somehow already have mastered. We’ve started to see the reality as being much different from that.

It’s important to begin to think of the role of corporates, NGOs, policy shops and social businesses such as ours a little differently than we have.

The recycling rate in the United States can be debated by other experts, but it is much closer to 0 percent than 100 percent. This isn’t the case in many lower income communities. In these places, recycling culture isn’t agreed on as an altruistic solution to a global crisis or a movement, but a means of putting rice on the table. Any waste that has value is picked up quickly, efficiently and nearly completely.

Over time, incredibly elegant systems and supply chains have been self-organized that would make Waste Management or Recology blush. In Surabaya, Indonesia, communities (not always government) organize work for local collectors to come door-to-door to move all waste to staging areas where recyclables are sorted out from non-recyclables. In Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, many waste collectors have neighborhood routes that can be traded or sold upon retirement for cash to young up-and-comers. In Port-au-Prince, Haiti, when the value of PET bottles increased, many local collectors stopped collecting trash and instead began encouraging their neighbors to save it and drop it off to them at local aggregation points for payment — which both increased the safety of collectors and the quality of the material. The upshot? Yes, we can be helpful to this process, but candidly, we have so much more to learn from waste workers than they do from us. We believe that we could be listening a little harder to them than we have so far.

Piece of good news No. 3: In many places, we’ve actually got the problem on the run

The hard truth is that additionality, at least in the first mile, actually can be quite difficult to pull off. Good solutions already have been put into place by the people that experience the problem personally, every day.

The entrepreneurs we have the privilege of working with in cities the average American has never heard about have long understood the opportunity cost of differentiated collection pricing, plastics arbitrage and buying and selling futures, and they’ve used these skill sets to very efficiently ensure everything of value is already collected. They didn’t use a book to learn these things, they only knew that if they didn’t figure something out, they would need to choose between which kid goes to school and which one comes to the landfill with them in the morning to pick up 22 more pounds of plastic bottles.

In light of this, we think it’s important to begin to think of the role of corporates, NGOs, policy shops and social businesses such as ours a little differently than we have. We don’t have to "solve" the problem. We just need to help the good folks who already have solved the problem to spread their ideas around so that waste collectives everywhere can access them. Then, we need to help accelerate progress. The best part of this approach is that if we do our part, it means better businesses and more money in the pockets of the folks on the front lines.

So, how do we do it? How do we speed up these processes to check this crisis off the list so all of the extraordinarily talented people reading this can move on to other cataclysms headed our way at breakneck speed? My team and I have spent almost a decade working in landfill communities, placing the poorest of the poor into jobs in the waste industry, working through child labor remediation and more recently, helping large organizations navigate these same waters for their supply chains.

Here’s a playbook:

1. Leverage the minds of the incredible resources we already have. I can assure you, the tens of millions of people around the world who are in this with us are exponentially more motivated than you or I to see recycling succeed. For most of us reading this, it’s a professional win and the ability to say we were part of something once. Not a small thing, to be sure. For waste workers, when you’re playing without an economic net as so many of them are, it’s not an exaggeration to say that it is oftentimes life or death.

Human-powered waste chains are not something to remember to include. They are the solution. We just need to invest more heavily in them. Like any good investor, we should be having more honest and earnest conversations with these brilliant men and women in the first mile of waste chains about what they require from us to move more material and improve their businesses. Let’s also use those conversations to figure out ways to add a little more agency and dignity to what can be dirty, dangerous work. We don’t need to ideate around those solutions or convene any conferences, we simply need to bring a pen to the meetings and listen. When we do, amazing things happen.

2. Fund them in the language they speak. 
If I had $1 for every person who told me that we can’t invest in the poor because they’re part of the "black market" or because of the "cartels," or because there is a waste "mafia," I’d have all the dollars. Last year, scientists discovered a mountain-sized rock 4 billion miles from earth remotely from a spacecraft traveling 32,000 mph. Somebody grew a hamburger in a lab. A team of doctors cured a second patient of AIDS.

Humans may have had a rough run of things lately, but we’re pretty impressive when we put our minds and hearts into something. I believe we can muster the creative resources to focus here and invest a couple billion dollars directly into the people who have been more successful than anybody else at solving the problem thus far, so they can end the crisis and join the global middle class. I’m not talking about social programs or handouts. I’m talking about loans that outcompete the loan sharks, equipment that increases the amount of material that can move to the processors, and the creation of a sizable and reliable end market for materials they can’t currently sell.

When we invest in those areas, not only will we ensure more waste gets collected and more money ends up in the pockets of the people "in the arena," but we’ll be building the agency and dignity that comes naturally with treating strangers as equals.

I believe we can muster the creative resources to focus here and invest a couple billion dollars directly into the people who have been more successful than anybody else at solving the problem thus far...

3. Focus on the materials that do not have a market. 
Focus is so important right now, and I’m afraid that we are sometimes putting resources in the wrong places. I just returned from Indonesia where my colleagues and I discovered a rPET war happening in the Surabaya wasteshed (like a watershed, but for trash). Demand there has outpaced supply and the collection price for rPET is rising, driven by the end markets established by new recycling facilities coming online. As a result, my team and I were hard pressed to find much PET in the field. That doesn’t mean it’s not out there, it just means that there is a clear mechanism and incentive in place in this particular wasteshed to ensure PET is eventually collected before it reaches the ocean.

This is happening in many Asian markets, and to a lesser degree in Latin America and Africa. Once a reliable and profitable end market has been created, waste entrepreneurs will finish the job. Our job then should be to help waste entrepreneurs in the first mile add a new revenue line to their P&Ls and develop a clear and reliable end market for ocean-bound plastic films and flexibles. All our resources should be directed at solving for the collection of these materials (and moving forward, the obsolescence of any designs that include single-use plastics).

4. Get out of the way.
 When we say all our resources should be dedicated to solving for the collection of these materials, here’s what we mean: There is a price at which all low-value materials can be collected by the existing waste infrastructure. There is also a price large processors will pay for these materials, provided they have an end market to sell to. We don’t need to do anything differently other than adjust the market conditions slightly. Currently, the price processors will pay is lower than the price workers need to collect profitably, so little gets picked up. This is an excellent place for big corporates to get involved.

Call it voluntary extended producer responsibility. If they contribute the funds that balance this gross margin deficit for hard-to-recycle waste streams in the top 500 wastesheds globally, waste entrepreneurs will start showing up with it at processors immediately. We tried this with styrofoam in Haiti, and the network delivered over 4,000 pounds of styrofoam clamshell containers in less than two weeks. We feel confident that this type of intervention would have a significant impact.

I won’t close with a sweeping conclusion. Instead, I’ll keep it simple. In the time it took you to read this, millions of pounds of plastic were collected globally by the incredible men and women on the front lines. Let’s get out there and help them finish the job.

To learn more from the leaders of the circular economy transition, visit PYXERA Global.

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