Published on Sustainable Cities

Waste workers are protecting our communities during COVID-19

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Photo: YT HUI / Waste worker is wearing protective gear on the street in Hong Kong, China. March 2020 Photo: YT HUI / Waste worker is wearing protective gear on the street in Hong Kong, China. March 2020

Waste management is an invaluable public health service, especially during the current coronavirus pandemic (COVID-19). Those of us privileged enough to have formal or informal waste management services right now are benefiting tremendously from avoiding the health risks of waste piling up. While waste workers across the world are protecting their communities, those in the informal sector face greater risk to their own health and livelihoods as countries lock down and economies slow down.

The International Labor Organization estimates that only 4 million of the 19 - 24 million people in the waste management and recycling sector are formally employed. The hazardous reality of the sector is that waste pickers often do not wear safety gear, which is particularly critical in the current health crisis, given the risks if infected materials are mixed in the general waste stream.

Reacting to the rapidly evolving situation, waste picker organizations such as Asociaciόn Nacional de Recicladores in Colombia and SWACH in India are promoting gloves and masks to prevent physical contact with trash and to keep a distance from people as well as from waste that is known to have been generated by COVID victims. The Global Alliance for Waste Pickers has been crowdsourcing global guidance and sharing best practices for waste pickers on their site. The South African Waste Pickers Association is asking people to separate their waste at the household level, and also to wrap tissues or contaminated waste in another layer of bags to limit the exposure to waste workers.

From an economic perspective, waste pickers are hit even more by global dynamics that are affecting recycling markets. Lower oil demand and prices will lower the price of virgin plastics further, hurting the competitiveness of recycled plastic. And with limits on cross-border movement, countries without developed recycling processes will likely dispose of their waste rather than recycle it. Shocks to global recycling markets look set to affect the prices that waste pickers receive for recyclable material, further constraining their earnings in these trying times.

In parallel, countries are rolling back efforts to encourage waste separation at the household level because of health concerns. Some locations with recycling facilities are choosing to suspend operations during the pandemic to minimize the number of workers who come in contact with materials that might be infected. Italy is asking that all recyclables from quarantined households be collected as residual waste. Efforts to protect public health could, without remedial action, have significant, unintended impacts on waste workers across the world.

Waste pickers are in a fragile situation, with both their health and livelihoods threatened.  Their work is even banned in some cases, preventing them from earning a living wage and serving their communities. Some communities have begun providing relief. For instance, although Ankara Municipality has banned waste picking, it is providing housing and food to waste pickers who would otherwise go homeless and hungry. However, with the global lockdowns, the informal nature of waste picking, and the volatile recycling markets, joblessness is likely to be the reality for many. It’s now more urgent than ever that countries and cities protect waste pickers’ work in a safe manner, so that they can continue to serve communities — or that these governments provide a safety net to this vulnerable population. Some strategies to strengthen informal waste workers can be found in What a Waste 2.0.

Even when this crisis ends, waste management will remain a crucial tool to safeguard public health and provide livelihoods. And new approaches in a crisis can bring longer-term benefits.  See how waste management investments that help stem Zika in Jamaica and Ebola in Liberia also resulted in improved solid waste management systems.  

What strategies have been helpful to protect waste workers and jobs in your communities, and how can your governments take action?

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Silpa Kaza

Urban Development Specialist, World Bank

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