Latin America still has far to go with respect to comprehensive waste management.  While cities and populations expand, and consumption rates grow, the amount of generated waste increases as well. Today, almost half of the region’s waste is disposed of in open-air dumps, generating huge environmental problems and risks to human health. According to a study by the Development Bank of Latin America, the region’s municipal waste corresponds to almost 12% of the amount generated on a global scale (160 million tons). The regional per capita average of generated solid household waste (RSD: of exclusively residential origin, resulting from human activity within the home) is 0.6 kg/person/day. Only two out of every 100 cities have formal recycling programs, and even these operations are insufficient, recovering only a small fraction of potentially recyclable waste. The bulk of recycled waste reaches the industry by way of some two million grassroots recyclers who work the city streets and landfills across the region. Their work not only reduces the amount of waste deposited in dumps and sanitary landfills, but also generates a flow of inputs for the industry. This, in turn, lessens the need to extract more natural resources and, consequently, reduces the pressure on ecosystems. It also creates a source of employment for grassroots recyclers (and for thousands of other workers in the recycling industry) and benefits municipal budgets by reducing waste management costs.

These workers make up a sector that has historically struggled against a sea of challenges: poverty, marginalization, social rejection, insecurity, and a lack of public policies recognizing their work. However, they provide an environmental and social service that today is indispensable for the sustainability of any city, and which represents an opportunity to structure regional Inclusive Recycling Systems and advance the development of a circular economy. [1]. For this to come about, it is necessary to formalize the work of grassroots recyclers within the framework of waste management systems and provide them with the necessary conditions, resources, and tools to professionalize their activities and receive recognition for the environmental and social service that they provide.

Recycling workers on the frontlines

At the center of any inclusive recycling system are the grassroots recyclers, who are called many things across the region: catadores (Brazil), cartoneros (Argentina), pepenadores (Mexico), gancheros (Paraguay), and recuperadores urbanos (or “urban recuperators”)  are some of the many names given to recyclers in our region. At the outset, these workers looked for ways to take advantage of garbage as a means of subsistence. Despite this, and the fact that the recovery of materials brings with it enormous environmental, economic, and social benefits, the work of grassroots recyclers is not yet formally recognized and, for the most part, remains unregulated and is performed under difficult labor conditions. This is because society still fails to recognize the value of the labor, and does not provide the adequate resources for the work to be carried out under conditions that would optimize its contribution to the sustainable management of urban waste.

What is the value of the work? First, the recovery of materials reduces the extraction of natural resources for the production of goods and extends the useful life of sanitary landfills by lowering the volume of waste that arrives daily. It also lowers greenhouse gas emissions, not only due to diminished waste disposal, but also because the production of goods using recycled materials generates fewer emissions than the production of goods using virgin materials. The work of grassroots recyclers is therefore an activity that mitigates climate change. Additionally, by representing an income for hundreds of thousands of people from the lowest socio-economic classes, the work of grassroots recyclers contributes towards the reduction of poverty and the inequality gap, in a region that today is the most unequal in the world.  

Eight decades of struggle on the streets

The struggle of grassroots recyclers has a long history. What began almost eight decades ago as completely marginal work, today has evolved into organized groups, cooperatives, and labor unions. However, there persists a lack of understanding of the significance of the struggle. It is not for handouts: it is for legitimate rights. In the absence of capital, many cities disguise payments made to recyclers as social assistance, further contributing to their stigmatization and devaluing their work. It’s for this reason that vindication must come from a society that appreciates that the work of the grassroots recycler is crucial to sustainable development.

Latin America has a long tradition of grassroots recyclers. It is a tradition of exclusion and marginalization of the people in conditions of poverty who, in order to make a living, scavenged through garbage under cruel and unhealthy environmental conditions. In open-air garbage dumps across the region, that reality still exists, as the crudest reflection of society’s own inequalities. Open-air dumps, sanitary landfills, and incinerator plants are always located in the most marginal areas, and the poorest people pay the environmental consequences of the excesses of a consumer society from which they only receive the remains.

Inclusive recycling systems propose a transformation of this reality. Organized grassroots recyclers have demonstrated that they themselves are the most efficient recovery technology and, by extension, the fundamental pillar of recycling systems. For this reason, any inclusive recycling system should be coordinated and managed by them, in conjunction with the government and the private sector. Such collaborative management, an alliance between diverse sectors, has proven to be the most effective, not only in terms of waste management but also in overcoming historical social inequalities. 

The obstacles to recycling systems

Although grassroots recyclers offer a service with great social and environmental benefits, they have been ignored. Their rights have not been recognized in the laws and public policies that provide the framework for waste management systems, and their work is not compensated in accordance with the services they perform. In turn, grassroots recyclers market the recyclable material via informal circuits, receiving income that does not cover the costs associated with the service they provide. This lack of recognition for the work of grassroots recyclers–which translates into unsafe and informal working conditions–and the lack of regulation, decent wages and social benefits, is the great obstacle preventing the entire inclusive recycling industry from achieving true consolidation.

Over the last decades, the predominant model for the waste management business has focused on collection, transportation, and disposal as a mere issue of basic sanitation: get the garbage off the streets and to its ultimate disposal location. This model consumes between 20 to 40 percent of the region’s municipal budgets and favors the creation of economic interests that prevent the incorporation of environmental sustainability, social inclusion, and value chain growth based on a circular economy. In short, the municipalities and cities spend an enormous amount of money on unsustainable and harmful collection and disposal practices, such as open-air dumps and sanitary landfills.

Added to this context is a more recent one, which also challenges the development of recycling systems: incineration technologies, or “Waste to Energy.” While in Europe, new circular economy regulations discourage investment in this type of technology, and cities like Madrid have already announced their gradual departure from the incineration of waste, manufacturers and international cooperation organizations are actively promoting these technologies as the solution required by Latin America for its waste management. Though it is true that in northern Europe incineration coexists with high recycling rates, in contexts where there is low institutionality for recycling, or only incipient development of recycling systems exist, the incineration technology competes directly with recycling for materials with high calorific power. Incineration technology thus threatens the development–and the very existence–of inclusive recycling, which is struggling to consolidate in Latin America.

The lack of laws and regulations is another factor that hinders the full implementation of inclusive recycling systems in the region. The investment required to finance this recycling is very high and doesn’t end at the sale of recovered materials. It must meet logistics and transportation costs, and cover the salaries and social benefits of the waste collectors. As the national and municipal governments do not have the necessary resources for the complete development of these systems, it is increasingly important that the region debates and draws up Extended / Shared Producer Responsibility regulations. With these, a variety of instruments will provide the resources to cover necessary investments.

While there are already some experiences of this type in the region– such as the Brazilian Sector Agreement, the Producer’s Extended Responsibility Law in Uruguay, the redeemable packaging tax in Ecuador, and the recent Producer’s Extended Responsibility Law in Chile–in reality it is a regional issue that has a long way to go. As it affects diverse and conflicting interests, its path is not clear of obstacles. There are examples within the region in which financing comes from government coffers, either through additional taxes, such as in Buenos Aires and Curitiba, or by the collection of waste management fees from the populace, as is the case in Bogota. These schemes, however, are limited in their ability to grow and consolidate. Schemes that properly place responsibility and allocate resources are needed to support effective recovery systems.

Consolidating inclusive recycling  

It is also relevant to study the inner workings of the grassroots recyclers’ organizations themselves, in order to work towards the consolidation of a model for inclusive recycling. The grassroots recyclers’ organizations, created as spaces for containing a marginal and vulnerable population, and as organizational instruments to challenge rights violations, must acquire the abilities that allow them to offer their services and participate effectively in the value chain. While there is still much to achieve in this terrain, many actors are ready to engage in the process.

Civil society must participate as one of them. The active participation of consumers is essential, as they play a daily role in maintaining a recycling system. Separation at the source is a determining factor when it comes to guaranteeing the sustainability of recycling. This means that separation and classification should begin in the home. Today, in the context of growing awareness of the serious environmental problems caused by poor waste management, society is displaying a willingness to recycle more than ever before. In this way, not only is the work of the grassroots recyclers given a new value, by providing them with raw materials instead of something considered garbage, but there is also an appreciation for the natural resources used to create the items that are being disposed of.

Ultimately, the consolidation of a recycling system would manifest itself in the transfer to what is known as the circular economy. The mantra of current production is “extract, produce, use and throw out.” In a circular economy, the entire system—starting from production—is designed to repurpose resources. This means that the production processes themselves seek to stretch to the maximum the useful life of materials that enter into the cycle, recycling them or using them for other processes. Such an economy is one in harmony with the great system called Nature, which truly governs all aspects of life. Today, many European countries are legislating in favor of a circular economy, in an effort to move away from the logic of extractive activity in the production and management of urban waste. Technologies such as incineration are already proving to be obsolete, inefficient, and polluting. They have highlighted the need to migrate towards a circular economy, in favor of society and the environment. The circular economy is also an alternative to the depletion of much of the raw material used today.

The best option

The issue of urban waste is complex, and there is still far to go in order to achieve the transformation that societies require. In particular, there remains some very strong resistance that has more to do with economic interests than with a genuine quest for social and environmental well-being. In that context, it is the citizens themselves who must make the basic demands that governments cannot ignore. In Latin America, there are already examples in countries like Argentina, Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador, and Peru, where recycling systems have been designed with the formal participation of grassroots recycler cooperatives. These cases offer lessons on both good and bad practices but, above all, they demonstrate that the struggle of organized workers can pay off, not only for recyclers but also for society and the environment.

Throughout the region there remain hundreds of thousands of other workers who walk the streets in search of materials, and who rifle through garbage dumps without security and in unsafe conditions. An inclusive recycling system in a circular economy implies a lot of work and resources, but is ultimately the best path towards the sustainable management of urban waste. At this point, the question is not whether the world can persist in its system of waste production and disposal, for it has already proved its own expiration. The question is: for how much longer can the unsustainable be sustained?

Links and bibliography

A Guide for Separation at the Origin:

The Political Ecology of Trash. Thinking about Waste from the South. 2017, Quito, Ecuador. María Fernanda Solíz T., coordinator.

  1. A Short History of How Waste Invaded Our Continent. (Magdalena Donoso).
  2. The Struggle of Ex Officio Recyclers on the American Continent. (Nohra Padilla Herrera).

Circular Economy and Technological Innovation in Solid Waste Opportunities in Latin America (CAF)

[1] Circular economy is a strategy that aims to reduce both the entry of materials and the production of virgin waste, closing the “loops”, or the flow of economic and ecological resources.