Health and Informal Recycling

Posted on: March 22nd, 2012 by and

Informal recycling is a widespread activity among the global poor, particularly in the global South. It involves collecting, sorting, and commercializing recyclable materials from the waste stream with the aim of generating or supplementing income.  These recyclers, known as catadores (pickers) in Brazil and as Binners in the global North (in Victoria, for example), perform an important role within their communities by removing recyclable materials from the waste stream and from eventual land filling or incineration. They further benefit their communities by cleaning up waste material which is often polluting the streets and waterways.

As a consequence of performing these services, the informal recyclers are putting their own health at risk. Collecting waste materials exposes the recyclers to hazardous working conditions, contaminated waste materials, and unsafe sanitary conditions.  Social health issues are also a consequence of informal recycling. Often the informal recyclers are among the most marginalized, and stigmatized parts of the population, and are regularly viewed as “waste pickers” rather than as “environmental service providers”.

While informal recyclers put their own health at risk, they are helping to improve the health of their communities, and surrounding environment. Uncollected waste can produces serious environmental health impacts. It can contaminate water as well can lead to the spread of insects, rodents, and fungus, which transmit infectious diseases.

In Brazil, there are estimated to be between 800,000 and 1 million informal recyclers (Gutberlet & Baeder, 2008, p.2). These people base their livelihoods on resource recovery, and perform this activity either on an individual or collective basis.  Through door-to-door collection, the recyclers act as environmental agents in generating awareness for responsible consumption within the local community. They further contribute to redirecting resources, thereby reducing environmental impacts from waste disposal. By collecting and removing solid waste from the waste stream, recyclers also prevent the extraction of virgin resources and thus indirectly contribute to resource and energy conservation.

It is evident that these recyclers contribute to environmental health by reducing pressures on raw resources and removing waste from eventual land filling or incineration, as well as contribute to community health in generating environmental awareness and in removing waste from the street.  However, as mentioned before, the important environmental role that these recyclers perform is often not recognized within their communities. In fact, these people are marginalized, disempowered, and are socially and economically excluded from the rest of the community.

To tackle both the issues of waste management, and the issues surrounding informal recycling, a system of inclusive or participatory waste management was brought forth in Brazil. In formalizing recyclers into cooperatives, it provides them with a means of alleviating many of the risks associated with informal recycling. The cooperatives provide the recyclers with a sense of empowerment and social inclusion, helping to steer perceptions of these recyclers away from being social nuisances, to viewing them as environmental service providers.  Further, cooperatives provide the recyclers with higher earnings.  Health risks related to selective waste collection are also diminished through the cooperative system. Co-ops create a space where recyclers can sort and bring their waste, instead of having to perform these activities in the street or in their homes.

By creating a formalized waste management system, communication between the recyclers and local government is also facilitated. The benefits of this are seen both through recognition of the recyclers as service providers, providing them with adequate remuneration, as well as through enhanced working conditions. Funding from local government can provide personal protective equipment for workers, as well as equipment such as carts which facilitates waste collection for the workers.

Inclusive waste management in Brazil is the focus of a project deriving from University of Victoria’s Community Based Research Lab, in conjunction with the University of São Paulo. Under supervision from Dr.  Jutta Gutberlet, many masters and PhD students have contributed to this project, entitledParticipatory Sustainable Waste Management (PSWM), as well as other, similar projectsThe issue of health and solid waste collection in particular has been a focus of masters student Eric Binion. If you are interested in learning more about this project, or about selective waste management in general, please check out our website at, or contact the CBRL.

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