Beyond the Landfill: Waste Pickers Around the World

by Julia Waterhous and Dylan Crary

Before leaving the United States, we never thought much about waste. Yes, trash collection is an essential service for the public health and livability of every city in the world. And yes, recycling is becoming increasingly important as ever-growing landfills and constant resource extraction challenge the resilience of our environment. So we recycled and composted, but saw waste as mainly an environmental issue.

Shelter constructed from salvaged materials.

When we went abroad, we realized that waste was not only a public service but also a source of livelihood in many cities. Beyond the landfill are people for whom waste management and recycling are the means for day-to-day survival.

In Delhi, writer, environmentalist, and activist Ravi Agarwal explained that waste pickers, beyond earning their own small income, added value to the incomes of waste producers and significantly reduce city expenditure. They offered cheap (often free) and thorough collection, meticulously sorting recyclables that support the materials market and greatly reducing waste that ends up in overfilled landfills.

Despite this, the Municipal Corporation of Delhi, the municipal body responsible for the majority of its public services, views waste pickers as a nuisance. Many are undocumented migrants, and their work is considered illegal because landfills are owned by the municipality. The recyclers are under constant surveillance by both patrolling and plain-clothes police officers who threaten them from organizing into a network to fight for their rights, even sometimes burning down their homes. They live in makeshift houses made out of salvaged materials, with little access to clean water and electricity, and are subject to constant raids and clearances. They have no vote, and no voice.

Along with the other participants in our study abroad program, we piled onto a bus that took us to the outskirts of the city, a literal wasteland. On a plot of land strewn with blankets, tin, wood, food scraps, and mountains of plastic bags, we met the waste pickers.

To make a living, these children pull recyclables from landfills in Delhi. Their bodies are often crushed by landslides of falling debris.

A group of young men lined up to watch us as we stepped off the bus, their faces expressionless. They led us down a narrow trail that zig-zagged past crushed takeout boxes with leftover daal and palak paneer spilling out. Silent children perched in a large tree, watching us. We passed a half-circle of old blankets hanging from wooden poles, from which more people emerged, curious and impassive. We made it to the only space free of debris, where a circle of chairs was set up on a large square of linoleum.

The waste pickers stand knee-deep in plastic bags, one of the items that they cannot salvage for sale because they are not recyclable.

We had hardly been there five minutes when our professor raised her hands to silence our questions. She came slowly around the circle, telling clusters of us in a low voice that we had to leave. There were plain-clothes police officers in the crowd who were watching the waste pickers and listening to the information being shared, and there would certainly be reprisals later.

It was a tense but unfortunately unsurprising situation. The treatment of waste pickers is perpetuated by the widely held perception of them as "lesser" people. We noticed that even those who maintain a positive relationship with the pickers exude such perceptions. Ms. Chaudhary, Vice President of the Defense Colony Welfare Association in Delhi, explained the benefits of the colony’s new compost program, which consists of hiring waste pickers (who are given uniforms and gloves) and teaching them to manage the compost pits — a "green" and noble endeavor.

Throwing something away does not mean it disappears. Waste affects people.

Chaudhary explained that before the program, “the rag pickers were mentally and materially impoverished and incapable of healthy life. By teaching them this new skill they have been saved.” She spelled out how having the pickers design the compost area without guidelines (only a few critiques from her) had “taught them how to think for themselves.” She noted that “hopefully they will carry [this ‘new’ concept of thinking for themselves] on to their children.”

This picture is not confined to Delhi. In Dakar and Buenos Aires, we saw that waste pickers are also marginalized, both politically and socially.

Waste pickers at the landfill in Dakar set up a rest area, including a restaurant. The makeshift tents are a mark of their integration into the formal waste collection system, as opposed to Delhi waste pickers who have to pay off city guards for access to landfills.

In Dakar, the waste pickers' role is more formal. They are recognized in legislation by the city government, and their livelihoods will be protected even as the government plans to move the landfill to a new location and revise the waste management system.

Yet, when we visited waste pickers at the Dakar landfill, we saw people using their bare hands to dig through piles of refuse covered with the white powder of hazardous chemicals. Thick black smoke from spontaneous methane fires cloaked them, causing us to choke and cough, but they kept working through these "normal" conditions.

Children at the Dakar landfill slide down a pile of waste using aluminum siding as a makeshift sled.

In Buenos Aires, following Argentina’s devastating economic crash at the turn of the millennium, thousands of desperate and unemployed porteños took to collecting and selling recyclables. The cartoneros (a somewhat pejorative term used for pickers) became a common sight in neighborhoods across the City of Buenos Aires, typically taking trains or buses in from outer districts in the early morning or late at night to collect whatever materials they could.

They were first persecuted by a society that considered them as dirty, dangerous, drug peddlers, and so forth. When Julia asked her host mom what she thought of the cartoneros around the city, she responded frankly: “I don’t like seeing them on the streets. Most of them have a vendetta against society, and I’m afraid they’ll hurt my daughter.”

An important moment came when the city passed the Zero Waste law, which set benchmarks towards eliminating all unnecessary intake in the city’s landfills that were (and continue to be) rapidly reaching capacity. The city realized that recycling by the pickers was crucial to reducing landfill intake and decided to legitimize the profession of the "recuperadores urbanos" by contracting picker cooperatives to cover parts of the city.

After losing his job during the economic crisis in 2001, Juan’s only hope of livelihood was becoming a recuperador urbano. Now he has a uniform and cart issued by the government to collect recyclables from the street.

The waste pickers are given uniforms, gloves, identification cards, and carts. Despite, this they are largely ignored, scorned, and even feared by the public, which keeps them in a position of vulnerability. The worker cooperatives have started to help with social integration by setting up community centers that double as meeting places for the waste pickers.

The governments in Buenos Aires and Dakar are slowly beginning to recognize the contribution of waste pickers, but more has to be done to further safety and social equity. The government in Delhi has so far ignored the work of the waste pickers, preferring to criminalize them and, as of recently, make room for corporations to enter the door-to-door collection industry, displacing pickers. In a capitalist system where the economic value of people is measured by their wealth, waste pickers simply don’t count.

After leaving the waste pickers in Delhi, many of us were left with pervasive feelings of guilt. How could we have so much when they have so little? Our professor firmly told us that feeling guilty was useless, because it was not about us. Guilt is a selfish feeling, she told us, one that stems from a subconscious idea that you have something more, or are someone better, than someone else.

From this feeling, people often set out with an agenda to “help” others by giving them what they have. This top-down aid is elitist and often unhelpful. Instead of approaching a person or situation with a pre-made solution, we should approach them humbly, seeking to understand and learn from them what they need. Instead of feeling guilty, our professor told us to ask ourselves how we could change how we deal with waste locally. In an interconnected world, local waste management can have far-reaching effects.

Back in the United States, I noticed that Seattle had started re-labeling trash cans as “landfill.” Putting a name on the destination instead of the product makes people reconsider where they put their disposables.

Waste collection is currently one of the most dangerous jobs in the United States. How do we react to people collecting disposables? Becoming more mindful of our waste and those who deal with it is a first step to reducing our global impact — not only on the environment, but on people.

Julia Waterhous and Dylan Crary are Polis interns.

Credits: Photos from Avery Williamson, Julia Waterhous and Athena Kurry.

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  1. The info on BsAs could use a bit of clarification... the majority of cartoneros come from south of the city limits (as well as some from the west) therefore are not technically porteños. In the beginning, groups would come in on large trucks just before official trash collection around 21:00 & cover their territory ... whole families, kids included, would participate in going through the trash & taking anything of value. As everyone felt the effects of devaluation, there was a show of solidarity from residents more than comments like those of Julia's host mom. In fact, local grocery store chains printed plastic bags saying that the content inside was specifically for cartoneros for people to separate recycleables & reuse.

    As mentioned, in later years the city government decided to make them official since recycling barely exists in BA. Kill two birds with one stone. National authorities provided trains not fit for passenger use to haul recovered items south from Constitución. Ten years on, most of the building supers (encargados or porteros) know who will be sifting through the trash, keep an eye on them so it doesn't get strewn through the streets, & residents usually just treat them as a normal part of the cityscape. If any fear is there, it's due to general feelings of insecurity but not based on any specific conduct by the cartoneros themselves.

    Comments like those of Julia's host mom should only taken in proper context. I've lived in BsAs for 11 years & have never personally heard comments like that mentioned.

  2. Hi Robert, thank you for the BsAs insight.

    In Buenos Aires, Julia and I were lucky enough to get to speak with activists and recuperadores urbanos from the Cooperitiva el Álamo based in the neighborhood of Villa Peuyrredõn. You are absolutely correct when you say there was a strong showing of solidarity from residents. This was evidenced by the creation of the cooperative which was founded by mothers in the neighborhood who provided child care, food, and some basic health care to the pickers coming off the trains. The second charge of the cooperative, which is telling of some fissure between the neighborhood and the pickers, was to integrate the pickers into the community. This was done by running the cooperative out of a community center, promising tidier collection, and having every member sign a pact that they would not drink or do drugs while on the job- a concern of those in the neighborhood.

    I’m glad to hear Julia’s homestay mom’s comments aren’t the norm and that work for the recuperadores urbanos stem from a sense of solidarity as opposed to a response to poor treatment.

    I regret the misleading paragraph. Thanks.

  3. This is the picture of reality today. Too much problem with poverty and waste... what happens next?


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