Photo: Global Environment Facility/Flickr
Waste pickers are the principal actors in reclaiming waste for the recycling industry. Across the world, large numbers of people from low-income and disadvantaged communities make a living collecting and sorting waste, and then selling reclaimed waste through intermediaries to the recycling industry. Where others see trash or garbage, the waste pickers see paper, cardboard, glass, and metal. They are skilled at sorting and bundling different types of waste by color, weight, and end use to sell to the recycling industry. Yet waste pickers are rarely recognized for the important role they play in creating value from the waste generated by others and in contributing to the reduction of carbon emissions.
Fortunately, around the world, waste pickers have been organizing and cities have begun to promote the virtuous circle that comes with integrating waste pickers, the world’s recyclers, into solid waste management.
Brazil was the first country to integrate waste pickers, through their cooperatives, into municipal solid waste management systems and the first to adopt a National Waste Policy, recognizing the contributions of waste pickers and providing a legal framework to enable cooperatives of waste pickers to contract as service providers. The national movement of waste pickers in Brazil was awarded a contract to clean the stadiums during the World Cup.
You cannot imagine my surprise while reading a BusinessWeek article last July about an innovative way to transform India’s litter into partial substitute for bitumen in asphalt to build roads!
Well, this transformative method arguably holds larger potential than the “garbage to music” recycling approach I recently wrote about in my first post about creative ways to manage waste. “Garbage to roads” was pioneered by an Indian chemist called Vasudevan, and it could help not only in getting rid of tons of plastic litter- thick acrylics and bottles, grocery bags and wrappers-- but in building roads at the same time. It’s a win-win solution for all.
I started working in solid waste management only a few months before I heard the story of the children’s orchestra in Paraguay, called the Orchestra of Recycled Instruments of Cateura.
These talented and driven children, all from poor families, had the creativity to construct musical instruments from recycled materials and use them to play classical music (check out the video “Landfill Harmonic”). The passion of these musicians, inspired by their unique social, educational and artistic influences – as well as constraints – and their ability to create art from limited resources strengthened my commitment to the work we do in solid waste management.
Up until recently, if someone asked us what the most important benefits of solid waste management were, we would have said improving public health, reducing greenhouse gas emissions, or helping with drainage in cities.
When we landed in Kingston a couple months ago to prepare for the Integrated Community Development Project (ICDP), we became aware of another benefit of improving solid waste management: reducing crime. We found that uncollected bulky waste such as laundry machines, refrigerators, air conditioners, and tree stumps could be used to block roads – and that glass bottles and other waste could be used as weapons.
Candida Brady, producer/director of “Trashed,” on communicating the need for clean-up
Candida Brady thinks everyone should visit a landfill for a day. The producer/director of the 2012 documentary “Trashed” (view trailer), which follows actor Jeremy Irons on a global tour of garbage sites, did just that at the beginning of her quest to understand the toll trash takes on peoples’ health.
Standing amid these mountains of decay is the only way for people to “understand landfills’ smell, and how it makes you feel,” Brady says. “None of us could talk after filming in them and one of my crew members was violently ill after we filmed in the landfill in Lebanon.”
Urbanization is the most powerful force shaping the planet today. This can be good news as urbanization is the best bet we have to meet our global poverty reduction targets. Cities generate our wealth, our culture, and our innovation. This is also bad news since cities generate the lion’s share of the world’s GHG emissions, and cities are responsible for most of the planet’s current decline in biodiversity. Cities also generate solid waste; lots of it and the amount is growing fast.
‘Peak waste’ – that point in time when all the waste from all the cities finally plateaus around the world, and then slowly starts to decline, is not on track to happen this century. Estimates are that it will peak at three-times today’s current waste generation rate. Peak waste is an excellent proxy for humanity’s cumulative global environmental impact; therefore we are on track to triple today’s overall global environmental impact. Our ‘assault on the planet’ will start to subside on the other side of peak waste. Therefore we must move peak waste forward and reduce its intensity when it finally does arrive.
Review: Behind the Beautiful Forevers, by Katherine Boo. Random House, 2012.
Katherine Boo’s book, “Behind the Beautiful Forevers,” digs deep into life in a Mumbai undercity. The author escapes the dichotomies that roll off our tongues when we speak of places that are replete with disparity; instead she spends seven years interviewing and observing, and brings us a story of life, hope, and despair in Annawadi, a slum precariously perched between an international airport and a sewage pond. What emerges is a sensitive, careful, complex portrait of characters that use the means at their disposal – hard work, political connections, lies, or prayers – to climb over the high walls that separate their city from the rest of Mumbai.
Using trash as a thread to tell the story, Boo illustrates both the feudal nature of life in Annawadi and the absolute segregation – the boundaries, to use Richard Sennett’s term – between the slum residents and those who live on the other side of the great big wall dividing the slum from the international airport. The narration is centered on Abdul and his family, who make money by selling recyclable materials from the city’s garbage. Their relative wealth has afforded them a position above the trash pickers’ – they own a small storage facility that allows them to purchase waste from collectors and sell it to waste dealers.
Yesterday in downtown Rio, in Forte de Copacabana, there was an entirely different atmosphere than at the Rio+20 negotiations out in Rio’s suburbs. The public — some waiting as long as three hours — filed through the city’s impressive expo on sustainable development. The festive and hopeful mood of school-children and local ‘Cairiocas’ seemed to buoy the mood of the mayors and officials in the main auditorium.
Some 2000 guests looked on as mayors and their friends like Bill Clinton (via video conference), national government, business and World Bank representatives launched a new initiative to reduce methane emissions though solid waste management. The C40 Solid Waste Network in partnership with the World Bank will focus on providing cities with technical assistance to develop projects that reduce methane gas production.
Ask any city manager or mayor what their top priority is and you’re likely to get ‘solid waste’ as an answer. You would think in today’s age we would have solved the waste management challenge and moved on to the next slightly more glamorous municipal service. Not so; and more than ever cities now need to pick it up a notch on solid waste management.
Solid waste is still probably the world’s most pressing environmental challenge. In poorer countries, solid waste can use up to more than half of a city’s overall budget; around the world there are more solid waste workers than soldiers; and despite the more than $225 billion spent every year on solid waste, in many low income countries less than half the waste is collected in cities.
Personal affluence up 3000%; people living in extreme poverty down from about 75% to 20%; atmospheric CO2 concentration up from 280 ppm to 393.5 ppm; at least 700 known species lost; 1.3 billion hectares with moderate to severe soil degradation; big fish in the oceans – more than 90% gone.
The starting gun for the first half of industrialization – globalization – urbanization sounded in 1784 when James Watt, William Murdoch and Matthew Boulton’s efforts culminated in a patent award for the “steam locomotive”. That’s when the urbanization race began in earnest. Half of us now live in cities, with 185,000 more streaming in every day.