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In a previous post, I gave an overview of one of Ecuador’s new “green” taxes: a USD$ 0.02 charge on non-returnable plastic bottles (made of PET, a material that can take up to 700 years to decompose). What impact do these tax instruments have on informal recyclers? Meant not only to stimulate the local recycling market and to address the negative externalities of plastic waste, the tax was also designed to support informal recyclers. The expectation was that this group would receive better prices for their collected goods, which, to date, has been confirmed only anecdotally. However, a price increase alone cannot address the structural inequalities inherent to informal recycling. A truly inclusionary tax scheme should reinvest revenues back into programs to support informal recycling implemented at the municipal level.

Zabaleen Cairo ICES

A Zabbaleen collector in Cairo, Photo Credit: Flickr Mosa’aberising

Much like other activities in the informal sector, waste collection and recycling is a small-scale, poorly compensated, labor intensive, and unregulated venture. Recyclers usually come from marginal and poor communities (e.g., rural migrants, the elderly and the disabled, religious minorities, etc.) and often lack proper permits, do not pay taxes, and do not belong to social security programs. Yet, informal pickers often play a central role in waste collection and recycling. For example, Cairo’s Zabbaleen, a small Christian minority of about 60,000, have collected over 50% of the city’s total waste since the 1930s and boast recycling rates of 70%, whereas official city systems only reach 10%. In Latin America, this role falls on Mexico’s pepenadores and buscabotes, Colombia’s traperos and chatarreros, Costa Rica’s buzos, and Argentina’s cartoneros, among many others. In this context, support programs for informal recyclers should focus not only on achieving higher compensation for their labor, but also on improving working conditions and eliminating the stigmas impressed on those working with waste.

Cartonero Argentina

A cartonero in Argentina. Photo Credit: Flickr r. dinali

In cities where official, public and private waste collection systems interact closely with informal pickers—an almost universal condition—there is usually an economic hierarchy among recyclers. Door-to-door collectors as well as roaming street collectors are at the bottom. Their profits come not from collecting garbage but from sorting, cleaning, and selling recyclable materials to other parties. Then there are specialized pickers, who selectively buy and/or collect recyclables from households, commerce, and industry. Some pickers sort and select materials from trucks before the waste reaches city dumps, and still others work directly in municipal landfills (and often live, extra-legally, in nearby settlements). Finally, comparatively more powerful middlemen and intermediaries use their cash and infrastructure to buy in bulk at low prices and scale-up the sale of recyclables to large enterprises and industries, often squeezing profits out of informal pickers. (Katherine Boo’s Behind the Beautiful Forevers, a book that explores life in a Mumbai slum, offers a bitter yet graceful description of this intricate system).

Cuenca reciclaje

A new curbside recycling system launches in Cuenca, Ecuador. Photo Credit: Cuenca.gov.ec

However complex this recycling web may seem, it is not especially difficult to integrate it into official municipal waste collection schemes. Brazil has numerous successful inclusionary programs that offer direct financial and institutional support to informal pickers and do much more than simply paying the right price for recyclables. Londrina’s “Recycling Lives” program recruited pickers out of landfills to work with the municipal recycling system, thus improving their working conditions while expanding collection coverage from 10,000 to over 50,000 households between 2000 and 2004. Street collectors, wary of being left out of the improved systems, came together as NGOs and launched new sorting facilities, which then became official partners in specific parts of the city. Londrina’s case shows that beyond the reach of fiscal policies at the national level, it is city governments who are ultimately responsible for supporting informal networks—particularly in places where waste management is primarily a public enterprise.

In Quito, Ecuador, where there are an estimated 3,000 recyclers, local authorities recently launched an education and training program that enrolls some 500 pickers (the program is not directly funded by the “green” plastic bottle tax). Cuenca, an ESCI city since 2013, has met a variety of targets for recycling, thanks in large part to new curbside recycling programs, mandatory sorting for households, and the deployment of multi-compartment trucks. While these policies help with waste picking, they do not seek to formalize or integrate informal recyclers. Cuenca’s EMAC, the city’s waste management utility, has recently begun working with recyclers to create local unions and cooperatives.

In Ecuador, programs to improve the status and work of informal recyclers should benefit from the funds collected under the plastic bottle tax. Reinvestment is not only essential to the success of a “green” tax, it is also fundamental to achieve a more inclusive and equitable local recycling system.