Hidden Heroes: Waste Pickers and their Contribution to our World's Recycling System

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Maya Duckworth
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We recently introduced you to 14-year-old *Widi. He’s a keen kite flyer and part of Compassion’s child  sponsorship programme. We sat down with him last year and heard about his life. He told us about his  appreciation for superheroes. “I love Ultraman – a Japanese superhero.” When we asked who his reallife superhero was, he said, “My hero is my father because he finds good work to earn money for us.”


Widi smiles from his neighbourhood.


Widi’s parents work as waste pickers. Different communities use other terms—in South Africa, they are known as ‘reclaimers’, and in Uruguay ‘clasificadores’. The terms refer to people involved in the collection, sorting and sale of recyclable waste, often in an informal capacity. Sometimes Widi helps his parents with their work. “I carry boxes from the outside area and bring items to my mum and dad. Then, they will sort through the rubbish to see if there are things we can reuse, sell, or just throw out.”


Widi and his parents. They work as waste pickers and play a vital role in our world's recycling system.


Widi’s parents are two of the 20 million individuals globally who earn an income working as waste pickers. And we agree with Widi’s assessment, his parents and the other 20 million individuals are heroes. They’re the hidden heroes of our world’s recycling system. Waste pickers collect 60% of all the plastic that gets recycled in our world, and they also play a valuable role in cleaning up their local communities. There is no doubt that without them the problem of plastic pollution in low- and middleincome countries would be far worse.


An individual sorts through piles of rubbish. 


Working as a waste picker is no easy feat. They often face stigma, low pay and threats to their health— infections, lung disease, and even cancer from inhaling toxic fumes from burning plastic or living amid rodent-infested waste. Even though waste pickers contribute significantly to our world’s recycling system and have extensive knowledge of waste collection, they are often excluded from decision-making that affect their livelihoods. Yet despite these challenges, these communities have shown great entrepreneurship and ingenuity in their work and campaigning.


Creating change together: The global plastics treaty

Right now, our world is in the process of drafting the first global plastics treaty. If we get this treaty right, it could address our world’s plastic pollution problem. But justice for waste pickers needs to be central to this treaty.

What does this justice look like? The International Alliance of Waste Pickers describe it as “Ending plastic pollution in a way that is as fair and inclusive as possible to everyone concerned, creating decent work opportunities and leaving no one behind.” This means that throughout the drafting of the treaty, the experiences and expertise of these communities need to be meaningfully listened to and taken into account.


A man collects plastic bottles and cans on his raft for sorting.


John Chweya, a waste picker from Kenya and representative of this Alliance was recently interviewed in The Guardian. He shared,

“We have been literally the backbone of collection and recycling systems in the world, and one of the things I know for sure is that the treaty must be for the people who have been on the frontline of fighting this global problem of plastic pollution. It is a matter of life for us. We have already died and are still dying, so I want to make sure that the role and contribution of waste pickers is not taken for granted.”

It also means the treaty must include a plan for a just transition. The Alliance describe a plan that “builds and improves upon systems that waste pickers have already established whilst guaranteeing better and decent work, social protection, more training opportunities … and greater job security for workers at all stages of the plastic value chain”.

Through the global plastics treaty negotiations, our Tearfund family is working to support waste pickers as they voice for themselves what a successful treaty would look like. We encourage you to learn more about their priorities on the International Alliance of Waste Pickers’ website.

As part of our support, we’ve launched a petition asking the New Zealand Government to prioritise a just transition for waste pickers as they negotiate the terms of the global plastics treaty. We encourage you to add your voice to ours and sign our petition.





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Maya Duckworth

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