Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Imagine a world without ‘basureros’

They are condescendingly called basureros by many Filipinos. However,
without these people who wade through the garbage that the rest of us
throw out our country would be in a bigger mess than it already is.

In industrialized countries municipal recycling systems are
commonplace. However, in developing countries like the Philippines
much of the work of picking what could still be used again from the
trash we throw out is done by basureros.

In a very important sense, these “scavengers” play a key role in
holding back the degradation of our environment. Rather than scorn,
they deserve our collective gratitude.

Environmental advocates, such as the personalities and groups that
form the Quezon City-based Global Alliance for Incinerator
Alternatives (GAIA) prefer to call them “waste-pickers.”

As described by GAIA, waste-pickers are self-employed workers, mostly
in the informal economy, who retrieve reusable and recyclable items
from the waste stream. They collect, sort, clean and in some cases,
process the recyclables, returning them to industry as an inexpensive
and low-carbon raw material.

According to GAIA co-coordinator Manny Calonzo, waste-pickers relieve
the authorities of much of the expense of waste management and
lengthen the lifespan of landfills.

Recycling provides a livelihood to approximately 15 million people
worldwide, or about 1 percent of the urban population in developing

“Waste-pickers can be incredibly efficient recyclers, achieving
recycling rates higher than 80 percent in places where they handle
organic material, such as Cairo,” Calonzo explained.

“Yet, in spite of their efforts, much municipal waste around the world
is not effectively recycled,” Calonzo added. “Waste-pickers thus
represent a huge opportunity to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions
through increased recycling rates, if given the proper recognition and

This week representatives of various governments have converged in
China for what GAIA describes as crucial climate talks. The Tianjin
climate meeting is the last leg of negotiations before the final
summit in Cancun, Mexico in November 2010.

“We urge the delegates to incorporate zero-waste strategies such as
waste prevention, reduction, reusing, recycling and composting into
the global climate action plan to shrink GHG and other toxic releases
in the waste sector,” Calonzo said.

“At the same time, we join the recyclers, including the waste-pickers,
in seeking recognition and support for their role in cutting GHG
discharges through the retrieval of reusable and recyclable discards
from the waste stream,” he added.

In its bid to raise negotiators’ awareness, GAIA is set to release
this Wednesday in Tianjin a report entitled “Respect for Recyclers:
Protecting the Climate through Zero Waste.”

Written by GAIA waste and climate campaigner Neil Tangri, “Respect for
Recyclers” warns against the promotion of “waste-to-energy” and
landfill gas technologies as “climate solutions.”

Mass burn incinerators and incinerator variants such as gasification,
plasma, pyrolysis and “refuse-derived fuel” technologies are severe
sources of GHG releases, emitting 33 percent more carbon dioxide than
do coal-fired power plants to produce the same amount of energy, the
report said.

“Yet rather than supporting these efforts, climate funds such as the
Clean Development Mechanism (CDM) are subsidizing incinerators and
landfill gas systems, which compete directly with recycling and
increase emissions, unemployment and public costs,” Tangri noted.

According to GAIA, the CDM has become a major supporter of these
technologies with some 185 landfill gas and incineration projects in
the pipeline as of September 2010, and only 34 composting projects and
no recycling project.

“This badly skewed allocation of resources does not reflect climate
priorities but rather the profitability of these technologies to the
large, multinational corporations that are the CDM’s primary
beneficiaries,” Tangri said.

“A new, non-market, climate finance mechanism is needed to support the
formalization and expansion of the informal recycling sector,” the
climate campaigner added.

GAIA noted that while waste-pickers are generally eager to expand
their recycling activities, they confront a variety of constraints.
Many of these constraints could be overcome by redirecting subsidies
and public funds away from incinerators and landfills and into
recycling and composting programs that value the work of

Most local authorities do not value the contribution of waste-pickers
to the environment and to municipal services, and do not officially
recognize or engage with waste-picker organizations.

Instead, waste-pickers are too often seen as a public nuisance or even
thieves who damage the image of the city by making it look different
from first-world cities. This conflict with the local authorities is a
constant danger and prevents the formation of useful partnerships,
GAIA said.

A more direct conflict comes about when local authorities seek to
privatize municipal waste management by giving an exclusive contract
to a private firm. This deprives waste-pickers of their livelihoods
and almost always results in lower rates of collection of recyclable

Even without such direct competition, the existing waste system poses
challenges. The working conditions of waste-pickers are extremely
hazardous. Few communities separate their household waste at source,
so waste-pickers have to deal with a mixed waste stream.

This also means that materials such as paper and organics are
cross-contaminated, lowering their value and the recycling rate, as
well as introducing occupational hazards. Also, many manufacturers do
not design their products and packaging for recycling, so they include
non-recyclable or toxic materials.

Other constraints are economic: waste-pickers generally lack access to
credit and to sufficient space within urban areas to set up their
sorting and cleaning operations. The global market for recycled
materials is highly cyclical, which adds an extra layer of financial
stress to waste-picker operations. And, in many places, there is not a
sufficient market for certain items, such as compost, whose recycling
is an environmental priority.

The global economic crisis has worsened this situation: the price of
recycled materials has dropped by up to 50 percent, causing
waste-pickers extreme hardship. Many materials are no longer
economically viable to collect, so they have reduced collecting them
or stopped altogether.

Market-driven waste management results in lower levels of recycling
and composting than could be achieved by systems focused on minimizing
greenhouse gas emissions, GAIA said.

Waste-pickers are an existing resource, which benefits the entire
community. The time has come for governments to give them the
attention they deserve.


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