You have likely seen the photos of children from around the world scavenging gutters and mountains of garbage. You might not, however, associate those photos with positive ecological stories about recycling, circular supply chains, and the benefits of buying products that incorporate recycled content.
The environmental benefits of the large-scale recycling industry are significant — landfill waste is reduced, pollution is minimized, greenhouse gases are reduced, and natural resources are preserved, among others. In many locations, the recycling sector is rapidly expanding as companies, governments, and NGOs recognize the critical impact recycling can make.
However, what is often hidden in these efforts are the abusive and often hazardous conditions under which material is collected for reuse. The poor and highly vulnerable populations who gather materials for recycling are often ignored, yet they are integral to the recycling process that makes the environmental benefits possible. Verité has conducted field work in many regions where the poorest members of the community engage in dangerous and dirty trash-picking work with little reward beyond, perhaps, a subsistence living.
Many countries have limited segregation of garbage at the point of disposal, thus recycling is reliant on a highly fragmented and complex array of street pickers, small businesses, and family operations. These workers and businesses are, in turn, supported by larger recycling operations that generally pay them by the bulk weight of the materials gathered (i.e., plastic or paper), consolidate gathered waste material, further segregate it, then sell it to even larger companies that process the material for reuse.
Driven by economic need and lack of opportunity, families with children, or children themselves, become waste pickers on the streets or in landfills. Small buyers of raw recyclables often also purchase material such as lead, car batteries, or containers that formerly held hazardous materials, such as household cleaners and pesticides. Through field research in Southeast Asia and Latin America, Verité has observed cases of children gathering recyclable materials on highways, underage or child pickers diving into sewage-filled canals searching for recyclables, and families keeping their children from attending school as they rely on their children’s labor to provide income for basic necessities. Given the risks of injury, chronic illness, and exposure to hazardous materials, much of the time, child work in these recycling activities is considered a worst form of child labor. Verité has discovered numerous cases of entire families living in trash dumps, their days spent pursuing garbage trucks to claim newly-arrived recyclables.
Exacerbating the situation, the individuals who actually gather materials are often not employees of any business, so lack any protections afforded employees under local labor law. Social and developmental issues, such as poverty, lack of access to education, and the perception of picking as “dirty” work have helped to establish an “invisible” population of people sorting through trash in deplorable conditions, no matter how positive the environmental benefits may be.
Solutions to these problems do not follow “traditional” social responsibility interventions, like audits of larger processors and codes of conduct. Recycling supply chains in just one city may involve thousands of pickers and small businesses. The first step for any company examining these issues is to map the supply chain through a rapid appraisal. An appraisal can identify the most hazardous types of picking activities and pinpoint where resources can most effectively be targeted. Companies must also alter requirements to reflect that trash pickers are similar to small business owners, meaning solutions like minimum living incomes for a family unit must be considered. A basic pickers’ bill of rights with income, schooling, and health care guarantees can help extend social benefits provided to regular employees to these workers and their families. Partnerships with local NGOs or supporting pickers’ groups or collectives can also be effective. Outreach, especially though existing community organizations and material consolidation points, can help pickers understand how to avoid child involvement in hazardous work.
As more trash and recycled content is exported to developing countries for processing, and demand for recycled plastics and metals increases, companies are obliged to consider these materials and processes in their supply chain tracing and accountability efforts.
Pickers, whether these are small business or individual family groups, must be regarded as valued partners without whom the recycling industry would not function. While agreement on the environmental benefits of the sector is universal, sustainability also means protection of labor rights. This must be extended to the labor force making these benefits possible.
For more information, contact Jon Pitoniak.

Photo credit: jorruang, stylization by Verité.

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