Workers who handle waste and recyclables support the health of our communities, economies, and the environment at the expense of their own health and wellbeing. On a daily basis, they may be exposed to hazardous materials, such as household cleaners, pesticides, and medical waste. The COVID-19 pandemic only heightens these health risks, particularly to informal waste pickers who collect the recyclable materials that we throw in the trash.
Of the roughly 19 to 24 million workers in the recycling sector worldwide, an estimated 15 to 20 million (approximately 80 percent) work as waste pickers. This means that much of the workforce that collects, sorts, and redistributes the world’s recycled materials does so without social security or the most basic personal protective equipment (PPE), such as masks and gloves. Informal waste pickers already contending with poverty and marginalization prior to the pandemic are now being significantly impacted by COVID-19 in a number of new ways: potential exposure to the coronavirus, the risk of losing their family’s only source of income, and an increase in hazardous child labor.
Heightened Risks to Waste Pickers
- As observed in previous Verité fieldwork in Latin America and Southeast Asia prior to the pandemic and that others have reported on during the pandemic, waste pickers lack the basic PPE needed to more safely carry out their work. COVID-19 can live on surfaces for days, thus waste pickers sorting materials without gloves or masks are vulnerable to infection.
- Waste pickers often lack access to the sanitary facilities, soap, and hand sanitizer needed to help prevent contracting COVID-19.
- Some countries lack systems to separate medical waste from other waste, which can include single-use masks, gloves, wipes, face-shields, medical protective gear, and hand sanitizer bottles — items that pose an increased risk of transmitting COVID-19 to workers. Even when regulations and written procedures have been established and medical waste bins are provided, implementation of procedures and monitoring may be insufficient to address the sudden rise in medical and hospital waste.
- In Indonesia and the Philippines, waste pickers and workers in collection and aggregating facilities generally do not have employment relationships with the owners of the facilities and thus lack access to basic benefits, trainings, and protections vital to their safety. Additionally, most waste pickers do not have identification documents, a prerequisite for accessing government health insurance schemes.
Loss of Income and Livelihood
- In countries with ongoing lockdowns such as India, the Philippines, and South Africa, informal waste pickers are not recognized as essential workers and thus cannot work during lockdowns. For families already living day to day on meager earnings, this can result in hunger, homelessness, and a lack of access to education, essential medicines, and supplies (which can also heighten their risk of COVID-19 infection and/or recovery from the disease).
- Business closures and slowdowns are also impacting waste pickers’ incomes. A recent article on this sector notes that in the Philippines, Indonesia, and India, business closures have resulted in some waste pickers losing their entire incomes. Additionally, some workers who collected and submitted recyclables months ago have still not been paid.
- Border closures caused by the pandemic may indirectly impact waste pickers’ incomes. In Cambodia, for example, waste pickers primarily sell recyclables across the border in Vietnam. With the closure of the border, a significant source of these workers’ income has been indefinitely lost.
- Informal waste pickers may see their incomes further decrease over the long-term as the worldwide surplus of oil lowers the price of virgin plastic, making recycled plastic less valuable, according to a World Economic Forum article.
- School closures and situations in which reduced incomes mean that waste pickers can no longer pay for their children’s school fees and materials present parents with few options but to bring their children with them to worksites.
- Waste pickers not affected by lockdowns may still experience decreases in their earnings, forcing them to rely on help from their children to meet their basic needs.
- Children who no longer have access to school may decide to permanently forego their education, placing them at a much higher risk of child labor.
- Given the risks of injury, chronic illness, exposure to hazardous materials, and now the coronavirus, children employed in informal recycling activities are generally considered to be employed in a worst form of child labor. For more information on how the pandemic contributes to risks of child labor and how companies can respond, see the Verité memo on COVID-19 and Child Labor.
A Call to Action
Governments and companies that generate or purchase recycled materials have a duty to work together to protect the vulnerable waste picker workforce from the new risks created by the pandemic. A growing number of companies have done so by committing to increase the amount of recycled materials in their products. Given waste pickers’ importance to the global recycling industry and their heightened vulnerability during the pandemic, companies should explore how to leverage their influence and resources to support them during these difficult times. Companies weathering the pandemic face many challenges and may be tempted to focus on their tier 1 suppliers and solutions that are simpler to execute. However, companies’ long-term sustainability depends on all workers throughout their supply chains, and companies should focus on the most vulnerable workers, among whom are waste pickers. Companies must recognize that as the unsung heroes of the circular economy, informal recyclers and sustainable enterprises need each other’s support.
Recommendations for Companies
Identify Waste Pickers in Supply Chains and Their Most Urgent Needs
- Recognizing that recycling supply chains are complex and fragmented, the first step for companies is to map their supply chains down to the level of recycling centers and determine whether informal waste pickers supply these centers.
- Having mapped their supply chains, companies can pinpoint where resources are most needed based on where much of the recycling workforce is informal, as informal workers are particularly vulnerable to the effects of the pandemic without additional intervention.
- Companies must consider where purchasing decisions need to be adjusted. One brand in the Philippines worked with local NGOs to assess the wages and payment practices of lower tier suppliers in order to support collection and aggregation facilities’ efforts to provide legal wages to workers.
Conduct Robust Monitoring
- While many governments have limited international and domestic travel to prevent transmission of the coronavirus, companies can conduct remote monitoring activities, such as sending self-assessment questionnaires (SAQs) to lower tier recycling centers that purchase raw materials from waste pickers. To be effective at identifying root causes and effective interventions, monitoring should be comprehensive and cover informal workers’ pay, working conditions, health and safety, discrimination, and child labor. Onsite special investigations may be necessary to develop an in-depth and credible understanding of risks identified through SAQs and remote assessments.
- Monitoring should cover countries’ regulatory frameworks and socio-economic contexts around waste collection, based on desk research and interviews with relevant local stakeholders.
- As monitoring can place additional demands on already cash-strapped suppliers, companies must ensure that their suppliers are provided with sufficient resources to participate in monitoring activities.
Collaborate on Local Solutions
- Local partnerships, including with established NGOs, can be effective in planning and implementing programs for informal workforces. In 2019, for example, Plastics for Change and the Body Shop launched a partnership in India to increase the use of fair trade recycled plastic for Body Shop products.
- Where pickers’ groups or collectives exist, companies can plan and implement programs through these collectives. In Indonesia, for example, Indofood, Unilever, and other companies have provided support to the Indonesian Waste-pickers Union (IPI), including soap and PPE.
- Implement outreach campaigns, especially through existing community organizations and material consolidation points, to raise waste pickers’ awareness of the risks related to the coronavirus, effective sanitation and safety measures, and available services.
- The long-term goal for waste pickers should not simply be for their conditions to marginally improve, but for them to have safe, fair, and legal work in the formal sector.
- Coordinate with local governments that have direct contact with waste pickers’ communities to understand their needs, existing services, and gaps, and work collaboratively to address unmet needs.
Take a Leadership Role in Protecting Informal Waste Pickers
- The pandemic has presented numerous difficulties to companies working to achieve sustainability goals. To meet these challenges, companies must show strong leadership on sustainability and human rights.
- As companies continue to make commitments on recycling, sustainability, and human rights, they should recognize that to meet their commitments, they will need to gather and report data on the informal recycling workforce in their supply chains.
- Ultimately, companies will benefit from integrating the informal recycling workforce more consciously into their supply chains, working toward the formalization of these workers. Efforts to recycle will arguably be most successful when all workers in the sector are recognized and able to safely work.
Photo credit: jaiman taip/shutterstock.com
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