The effects of handling solid waste on the wellbeing of informal and organized recyclers: A review of the literature. By Eric Binion and Jutta Gutberlet

Posted on: February 19th, 2013 by

“Is the drastically shortened lifespan—the injuries, accidents, deaths—a direct outcome of the informal occupation or is it a result of the variables of inhabiting a marginalized socio-economic living standard?”

Eric Binion and Jutta Gutberlet co-author an article titled “The Effects of Handling Solid Waste on the Wellbeing of Informal and Organized Recyclers: a Review of the Literature”. This article summarizes the literature on the subject of reported health risks —both observed and perceived— of informal recycling (44).

The title ‘informal recycler’ is “linguistically diverse”, identified colloquially in Brazil as catadores or carrinheiros, in Argentina as cartoneros or recuperadores urbanos, as binners in North America, or as zabaleen in Egypt (43). “Informal recycler” is used in Binion and Gutberlet’s review to generalize “all individuals involved in the informal solid waste recovery sector” (43).

“Studies with informal recyclers and health have been completed worldwide, particularly in Brazil Vietnam, the Philippines, Argentina, and South Asia” (44). The studies have accumulated evidence showing the serious risk that the informal recycling occupation poses to both the environment and human health. The literature review by Binion and Gutberlet is an “accumulation of existing studies, followed by a collection of the nascent work being developed by researchers particularly in the South” (44). 

The following six sub-themes are addressed: chemical hazards, infection, ergonomic and musculoskeletal damage, mechanical-trauma, emotional wellbeing and vulnerabilities, and environmental contamination. This report also addresses the benefits of operating within a recycling cooperative (45).

Chemical Hazards:

Informal recyclers often occupy landfills or city streets where they are exposed to toxic chemical substances and are placed in work related situations where they inhale “burning waste or vehicle and heavy machinery emissions” (45). “There have been numerous documented self-reported respiratory ailments, such as decreased lung function, lung infections, and eye irritation, as a result of diesel fuel exhaust and burning waste (45). Also, “the constant exposure to exhaust is thought to be correlated with a higher level of bronchitis reported by recyclers, as well as headaches and nausea” (45). High levels of lead found in the blood of recyclers working in landfills and within the breast milk of women neighboring landfills of recycler communities poses another threat to the health of workers and those in surrounding areas (45).

Unregulated “industrial, pharmaceutical, and hospital waste” are also harmful chemical hazards that are “catalyst[s] for infection” (45).

The Goiania accident in 1987 is an example of failed policy with regard to chemical waste mismanagement. A hospital in Goiania, Brazil “carelessly discarded” nuclear medicine equipment as waste. “Recyclers took this material home to be sorted and dismantled, allowing radiation to leak and infect themselves, their families, and their friends. The event led to four deaths and radioactive contamination of 249 individuals” (45).

“In addition to radioactive hospital waste, pharmaceutical rejects may be illegally disposed of in landfills or left in the streets to be picked or sorted through by children” (45).


Recyclers working without adequate protection are at risk of infection from pathological waste generated by the improper disposal of “medical waste, solid household waste, human waste, and decaying organic matter” (46).

“Mishandling solid waste, such as medical waste and syringes, is one of the higher perceived occupational threats for the informal recycler” (46).

“Infections may occur by direct contact with biological pathogens, such as hepatitis B or through exposure to biological contamination resulting in respiratory ailments, “a leading complaint perceived by informal recyclers” (46).

o   “In Metro Manila’s main dump site, 974 children were examined, 24% of which had chronic cough, 25% wheezing, and 19% a shortness of breath. At the same dump site 10 years earlier, out of 750 informal recyclers, 70% had upper-respiratory ailments, including tuberculosis, pneumonia, asthma, and bronchitis (46).

o   A similar study in Managua, Nicaragua, demonstrated that children who pick waste exhibited a decrease in lung function and wheezing due to a higher exposure in particulates” (46).

o   Kennedy et al discovered that nasal infections and acute chest symptoms experienced by individuals working in bottle return stores were associated with “endotoxins derived from decaying waste growing in bottles” (46).

Stomach infections are also common among informal recyclers as  “economic hardship occasionally pushes recyclers to consume recovered food leading to “intestinal diseases such as worms, flukes, and viruses” and “food poisoning [that] may cause diarrhea, parasitic infection, and nausea” (46).

The incidence of acute diarrhea was 10 times greater in informal recyclers than in the general population” and “in stool samples taken from children working in Manila, it was confirmed that 98% had parasites, either Trichuris trichiura, Ascaris lumbricoides, or both” (46).

Ergonometric and Musculoskeletal Damage

“Ergonometric injuries consist of musculoskeletal illness, the direct result of repeatedly moving and lifting heavy objects, such as carts and bags filled with solid waste” (46). Informal recyclers are prone to “sprains, fatigue, muscle pain” “lumbar disc prolapse, neck disorders, tendon disease, and increased pulmonary ventilation as a result of frequent “squatting, vibration, repetitive movements and awkward postures while sorting and collecting solid waste (46).

“Reports from a US study on formal sanitation workers revealed that arthritis was four times more common in sanitation workers than in general laborers , which coincides with self-assessed reports from informal recyclers in Brazil” (46).

Recycling cooperatives, “although not a means or end-product to alleviating all health issues”, do provide benefits that respond to the aforementioned reported health risks. For example, “working together in a cooperative can reduce over exhaustion and over working, which are factors in musculoskeletal damage, stress, anxiety, and depression” (49).

Mechanical Trauma

The threat of vehicular accidents, the dangers of working at night, a lack of safety equipment and medical opportunities is a justified problem in the informal recycling center around the world. Recyclers deal with mechanical accidents such as “cuts, blunt trauma, falls, lacerations, and traffic accidents” on a daily basis (47).

“17% of recyclers in Vietnam mentioned being involved in either a minor or major collision with garbage trucks” (47).

Recyclers also often prefer to work barehanded for “greater tactility”, but a lack of safety equipment leads to a “common occurrence of lacerations to the hands, arms, and legs (47).

The mechanical trauma’s that recyclers face in their line of work brings up another issue: medical care.

“Regardless of high-or low-income countries, the informal recyclers appear to wait too long before seeking medical help thus increasing the likelihood of infection” (47).

There are varying reasons for recyclers to postpone medical care. “Recyclers in Guatemala reported avoiding health clinics and hospitals when injured or sick for fear of discrimination” (48), and “only 32% of the recyclers in Columbia went to see the doctor when they were ill, citing lack of health coverage as the issue” (47). And in the situations where “informal recyclers may have access to health care, it may be impossible to receive the care, as at times, they are requested to take work off, which is not fiscally feasible when living on day to day pay” (47).

“In Portland, Oregon, medical records confirmed that the majority of recyclers arriving with lacerations had cuts in such poor states that medical officials were often unable to stitch them” (47).

“Undoubtedly, the issue of medical care can be deemed a social issue, a lack of knowledge of hazards, and an absence of medical opportunities” (47).

Cooperatives provide an option for easier access to health care (49). The recycling cooperative “El Movimiento de Trabajadores Excluidos“ in Buenos Aires, is a part of the Argentina’s workers union that has access to Obras Sociales, a social security network that allows extended health insurance” (49). Further, cooperative members are also provided durable uniforms with reflective strips, and are able to register with the city, thus accessing free gloves and vaccinations, such as tetanus” (49).

Emotional Wellbeing

“Social stigma and marginalization, coupled with the precariousness of the work and lack of financial security can create unnecessary stress” for informal recyclers and lead to a “higher self-assessed degree of vulnerability” (48).

“The public may perceive the informal recyclers in a variety of ways; some assist the recyclers by pre-sorting their materials from the garbage or by providing food, while others socially exclude and marginalize them” (48).

Informal recyclers have self-assessed stress related symptoms that include “ulcers, high blood pressure, and stomach problems” (48). Additionally, “signs of depression and anxiety…occurred 44.7% more in recyclers than within the average neighborhood referent group” according to a study in Brazil (48). In addition to stress-related issues, the social stigma attached to “working in a dirty job” may form a “self-fulfilling prophecy” where informal recyclers “lose [a] sense of dignity” (48).

 · As mentioned, recyclers may consume food from the waste, risking infection.” Further nutrition issues are addressed as social problems” (48).

· “Malnutrition, infant growth retardation, and anemia are more prevalent in individuals and families who work in informal recycling” (48). “Oppositely, improper nutrition can also lead to obesity, as demonstrated in BMI comparisons with recyclers in Columbia” (48).

· Also, due to lack of social support, it is not uncommon to witness “young toddlers to pre-teen children working with or alongside their guardians” at landfills. At a young age “intensive working environments and heavy lifting…can have lifelong negative effects on general health or may have growth-stunting effects” (48).

Environmental Contamination

Informal recyclers play an important role in the “global challenge of environmental stewardship, addressing consumption, and raising awareness on recycling” by challenging and removing the “waste stream that would typically allow waste to be deposited, buried, or incinerated” (48). The long-term effects of working with solid waste however, may not only have negative effects on the physical and emotional health of the workers, but depending on how the materials are “collected, sorted, and transported” certain parts of the environment can also be affected by informal waste collecting” (48).

“Untreated and unregulated waste-streams have the potential to create and continue to spread infectious diseases to informal recyclers and their immediate community” (49).

Incorrect storage of organic waste can create “dangerous molds, toxins, and gases, such as methane, that can put “households, organizations, and cooperatives in danger” (49). The mishandling of waste also allows the “waste stream to propagate into other areas”…”clogging sewers, creating stagnant water, and thus producing breeding grounds for pathogenic organisms, facilitating the spread of diseases such as dengue” (49). Animals, such as livestock, birds, or rats feeding on waste at landfills or informal dump sites increase the potential of diseases, such as trichinosis and taeniasis, to be transmitted (49).

Health and the Cooperative

Most resource recovery is “unassisted and without adequate health protection measures in place” (43). “However, some recyclers in countries such as Brazil and Argentina mobilize to form cooperatives. The cooperatives allow collection, separation, and commercialization of the materials recovered from the solid waste stream in an organized and equitable fashion” (43)

“The creation and use of cooperatives and associations [can] create a working environment that fosters emotional and financial support for their members” (49).  “The activity of informal recyclers has been noted as being “individualistic” and therefore the creation of cooperatives has not been without its set of challenges” (49). Nonetheless, there have been numerous successful cooperatives, such as the aforementioned MTE in Buenos Aires, and many others in Brazil, Columbia, and throughout Latin America (49). Recycling cooperatives, “although not a means or end-product to alleviating all health issues”, does act to “strengthen the organizational base of the recyclers by opening up discourse not only between groups and individuals in other regions, but has also created a “conjoined voice for recyclers when discussing policy matters with local and regional governments” (49).

Binion and Gutberlet’s literature review exemplifies the varying and diverse health risks associated with informal recycling. The formation of a cooperative, “working alongside the government, can progressively move the informal employment into the formal sector” (49), reducing social stigmatization and marginalization and “allowing easier access to legal protection and health care” (49).

This blog entry was based on: 2012  Binion, E. & Gutberlet, J. The effects of handling solid waste on the wellbeing of informal and organized recyclers: A review of the literature. Journal of Occupational and Environmental Health. 18 (1): 43-52.

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