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Waste work shift: Inside the structural changes in the global waste sector

Informal waste workers have long managed the waste of the South, for whom new forms of collectives offer new hope, while the gig economy threatens to de-formalize waste management in the North.

Adapted from "Waste," by Kate O'Neill (Polity, 2019). All rights reserved.

In both North and South, waste work evolves and changes. This section investigates how structural changes are playing out, examining the growing integration of the informal waste sector into formal waste management in Southern cities and evidence of "deformalization" of waste work in the North.

book cover of Waste
Formalization in the South is very different from its historical predecessors in the global North: trade unions as emerged in Northern cities are rare, and labor-intensive, low-cost work continues to dominate the introduction of capital-intensive technologies. In India, the government prefers to see waste workers as entrepreneurs (who bear their own risks) rather than as employees. 

Organization and integration of informal waste work

Waste picker communities have had to respond to outside threats to their livelihoods, and in doing so, many have built lasting networks and strong relationships with each other, in the form of collectives or with local community-based organizations and environmental groups, as the above examples demonstrate.

Waste-to-energy opposition campaigns have brought waste pickers together in common cause with home dwellers opposing neighborhood incineration projects. They have found allies in local authorities, churches, international NGOs, and international development organizations that favor micro-enterprises. Informal waste picking as a profession and a livelihood has, therefore, lent itself especially well to vibrant and strong activism.

The visibility of waste work may aid in these developments: Outdoor workers in cities and towns can more easily reach each other or be reached by community organizations and journalists than are domestic, factory or agricultural workers. However, the open nature of their work also leaves waste pickers vulnerable to harassment and violence, from other workers (for example, conflicts over territory) or from authorities.

Police are known to harass waste workers, often children or more vulnerable workers, in the Rio de Janeiro favelas. Such violence, however, has also galvanized waste workers to organize for self-protection. Gender inequity within the profession, worker safety and exploitation, and relationships with governments or outside corporations are part of movement agendas. Conflict, too, is visible: Trash in the streets is a potent symbol of political disarray, and quickly galvanizes public opinion.

Efforts to organize work to protect workers in the sector, grant them representation, training, education for children and basic health protections and benefits have gathered steam in the last two decades. Waste picker organizations or collectives may take the form of unions, cooperative organizations, or micro-enterprises (closer to small businesses). Waste worker collectives can be found all over the world.

Efforts to organize work to protect workers in the sector, grant them representation, training, education for children and basic health protections and benefits have gathered steam.
Waste pickers in Latin America started this process, in Brazil and Colombia, and waste workers around the world followed suit (Marello and Helwege 2018). In Guadalajara, Mexico, cooperatives, based on a network of families, disassemble e-wastes. Hasirudala in Bangalore works with companies to provide full waste collection services. Amelior, in France, is an example of a developed country collective. In South Africa, the Johannesburg Reclaimers Committee was formed in 2017 to resist the city government’s efforts to shift recycling services to private sector companies (see below). The goal of many such informal organizations is to provide members with a sustainable livelihood: one that "can cope with and recover from stress and shocks, maintain or enhance its capabilities and assets, and provide sustainable livelihood for the next generation, and which contributes net benefits to other livelihoods" (Uddin and Gutberlet 2018, p. 2, citing Chambers and Conway 1991).

With the ongoing lack of formal municipal waste services in developing countries, the growing organization of informal waste workers and the encouragement of international development agencies, more waste picker organizations have started working with city authorities and local industry to take over official waste management services as employees or contract workers, processes of inclusion or integration. These city governments make an active choice to combine improving waste services without displacing the informal laborers who have held those jobs for decades.

Two particularly well-known examples of such integration are in Belo Horizonte, Brazil, and Pune, India (Dias 2016, 2017). Belo Horizonte is the sixth-largest city in Brazil and was an early pioneer. Since the early 1990s, the city has worked with informal worker organizations, including them as preferential agents in the collection of recyclables in the city. In Pune, the Solid Waste Collection and Handling (SWaCH) cooperative started working officially with the city in 2008, responsible for door-to-door collection. They are far from a rare phenomenon, and international organizations like WIEGO work hard to create conditions for such integration to be successful around the world. In this they are supported by international organizations from the World Bank to the ISWA. Women waste workers have created their own organizations, to highlight their role — often as the workers least visible to the public, and subject to worse work and pay conditions even within broader collectives.

Collectivization and integration mean that their children get more opportunities for education and care.
These processes of collectivization and integration are welcome. However, we know less about the conditions under which they succeed or fail. Governments change, competition emerges, either within the informal sector or from outside, and funding for training and capacity building might fail. Markets for recycled goods can crash. Collectives that reproduce pre-existing hierarchies are likely to perpetuate existing inequalities. Poor migrants are less likely to collectivize (or to receive support from existing community organizations), even though they are likely to do informal and dangerous waste work.

When interviewed by the media, waste pickers emphasize that they do not want their children to grow up in the same profession. Collectivization and integration mean that their children get more opportunities for education and care. At the same time, growing inequality and deformalization at the level of the global economy may erode these opportunities.

Child labor at informal waste work sites in China, Africa, and other parts of the world is an ongoing problem, as is conflict and violence against waste workers as state or corporate actors continue to enclose waste disposal sites. For example, GlobalRec reported that in Johannesburg in July 2018, waste pickers were attacked by members of a private security company specializing in evictions. This incident occurred within the context of recent city plans to implement a mandatory separation-at-source policy for households and contract out collection to private companies.

De-formalization? Trends in developed countries

This chapter has charted trends toward integration — formalization — of waste and recycling work in countries in Latin America, Africa and Asia. There is some evidence in developed countries, especially the United States, that the reverse is happening. There are more instances of contingent labor in the big cities and anecdotal cases of informal recycling of e-waste and similar materials, adding to a shadow waste economy that has always existed (for example, unauthorized bottle and can collectors). Protections for workers in wealthy economies have eroded, for example as trade unions are pushed back. Workers in the gig or sharing economy are part of the swelling "precariat," a term used to describe workers in contingent or part-time work (Friedman 2014).

Technological innovations, such as the automation of garbage collection and sorting, the use of drones to monitor landfill sites, and even driverless trucks, will shape employment trends throughout the industry (Rogoff and Spurlock 2017). The privatization of waste services and outsourcing scrap recycling overseas (to jurisdictions with cheaper labor) is driving a longer-term shift away from formal waste work as solid blue-collar jobs, with trained, paid (and often unionized) labor in developed countries.

The 'Uberization' of waste collection is a phrase tossed around, often without reflection upon what that might mean in practice.
European studies show that while municipal employment is still significant (and even edging its way back up in some cases), private companies dominate recycling and reprocessing. The EU’s refugee crisis may have swelled the ranks of informal sector waste workers. Studies from the New York City sanitation department itself have found evidence of day laborers being hired to work regular shifts. Certain types of waste and recycling workers are more likely to be excluded than others from the benefits of formal representation: private company employees or contracts, even if on a municipal contract, may not be paid according to local laws (Rosengren 2018a). MRFs in the United States are nearly always privately run. They also have a higher rate of on-the-job accidents than waste collection work, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor statistics.

This trend toward deformalization, if occurring in countries such as the United States, is not all negative. Local collectives such as the award-winning Cero Co-op in Massachusetts, which provides compost pick-up around Boston, provide a locally based solution for specific cases. Likewise, small repair stores in Sweden provide a valuable local service and generate tax breaks. However, the question now is whether waste work will enter the "gig economy" in rich countries and cities. The "Uberization" of waste collection is a phrase tossed around, often without reflection upon what that might mean in practice.


This chapter has focused on how people derive their livelihoods from waste, from some of the largest global corporations to workers in the world’s poorest urban areas. These actors work on a global resource frontier, even if their work is right outside the doors of their home.

The frontier is a zone of conflict that engages governments, corporations and workers in ongoing struggles, and uneven exposure to risk. The realm of waste and recycling work is a good place to see the confluence between the formal and informal sectors, and trends across and within the global North and South. It is also a central arena for new forms of transnational activism.

What about governance? This chapter showed forms emerging at the local level — collectivization, integration of informal workers — well as the real challenges to governments in waste labor conflicts. The Waste Managements, Veolias and Covantas of this world are high-profile corporations that can be held accountable more easily than less high-profile waste industry actors, but even so, they are routinely criticized for their records on the ground.

International organizations such as the International Labor Organization (Lundgren 2012) have spoken out for waste workers. Direct regulation of worker health and safety, wages and benefits remain in the hands of sovereign governments, however, and hard to tackle from the global level. Governments themselves may lack the will or capacity to address significant challenges in regulating transformed labor economies. Labor law and relations are changing, for better or for worse, and the status quo is no longer fit for today’s realities (Ashiagbor 2019).

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