Pickers. Scrap dealers. Recyclers.
In the U.S or other generally wealthy countries (at least for some), those terms may conjure up clean, safe, entrepreneurial jobs of people re-using other people’s cast-offs to make thousands of dollars. Running successful businesses cleaning out storage units. Repurposing furniture and reselling it. Taking it to scrap yards for cash.
It’s great that there are ways to make a living while helping to keep other people’s junk out of landfills.
But that’s not the reality for millions of people around the world. For poor people in developing nations or countries that just don’t have great recycling programs, life isn’t so clean and profitable.
Think Slumdog Millionaire
If you haven’t seen the movie yet and you have a soft heart, be prepared. Of course, there’s a happy ending for some of the people in the movie. It’s actually based on a true story which is grim but not as quite as desperate as the movie storyline. But the scenes of children covered in every kind of filth imaginable from “picking” which is actually just trying to survive, is very difficult to watch and isn’t very far from reality.
The movie takes place in India and having traveled throughout many areas of the country, we can personally attest to the fact that there are desperate situations for the many poor residents of India.
But it’s not just India. Many countries with generational and institutional poverty have thriving industries and high standards of living.
Unlike reality shows with wealthy businesspeople wheeling and dealing for household items and the occasional treasure, waste pickers in most countries are relegated to the bottom sector of society.
Unfortunately, these scenes are playing out all over the world.
Where does it all come from?
Those mountains of trash (and, in many cases, seriously unhealthy waste) can be found in countries that don’t have good recycling programs (or any program, for that matter) or that have traditionally charged certain segments of society to clean up everybody else’s garbage.
It comes from the same place it comes from in countries that recycle – the rest of us.
According to Resource Recycling, Inc., India produces over 6 million tons of waste per day and approximately 20% is collected by the informal sector – pickers who have traditionally been from the Dalit caste.
Rise of the Dalit (and waster pickers everywhere)
In India’s caste system, “Dalit” has traditionally been considered the lowest caste which were formerly known as “Untouchables.” Their role in society was to literally clean up after everyone else. Anything and everything.
Although the government now refers to them as “Scheduled Caste,” their lives haven’t changed significantly. They are largely still poor outcasts who mostly have to scavenge for survival.
And, unfortunately, Dalits have counterparts in many countries around the world. In South Africa, they’re referred to as “reclaimers” or “Bagerezi.” In Indonesia, it’s “pemulung.” The Portuguese word is catadores and in Spanish, recicladores.
There are varying estimates of the number of waster pickers around the world, ranging as high as twenty million. They face a number of challenges and threats as a result of the exposure to hazardous conditions, exploitation, and grinding poverty.
But change is coming for the original waste pickers of the world
They’re organizing throughout the world to improve their living conditions and gain the respect they deserve as equal citizens. They’re forming collectives and small businesses and breaking down caste and class barriers.
In 2008 in Bogotá, Colombia the The Global Alliance of Waste Pickers held its first world conference and officially adopted the term “Waste Picker” to describe the critical work that they perform.
Pickers provide critical services to their communities while also having a means to support their families. Fortunately, organizations like The Global Alliance of Waste Pickers and WIEGO (Women in Informal Employment; Globalizing and Organizing) are working hard to legitimize the occupation and provide protections, better pay, and working conditions for the millions of waste pickers around the world.
Hopefully, there’s a way to support this industry and keep these workers employed while concurrently managing our growing, global waste crisis.