Christine Furedy

B. A. (Doubles Honours) University of Sydney
D. Phil. (African and Asian Studies) University of Sussex



[Prepared for Urban Waste Expertise Programme of WASTE, May 1997; published in Source Book for UWEP Policy Meeting 1997. Revised April 1999]


Dr. Chris Furedy, Furedy Research and Advising Inc., Toronto

A. Introduction: concern for waste pickers

Although there are no accurate estimates of total quantities of materials recovered by pickers and the contribution of this recovery of resources to urban economies, it has been recognized for some years that their role in reducing wastes, and in providing resources for manufacturing, cannot be dismissed as unimportant. An estimate made for Manila some years ago was that pickers extracted up to 12% by weight of materials deposited at large dumps.

We cannot afford to ignore the status and needs of waste pickers. Most waste pickers are poor, and their work is among the most risk-ridden of occupations in urban areas; they live in very poor conditions, and suffer stigmatization and exploitation because handling waste materials is disdained by society at large.

There has long been a concern for waste pickers among those with a welfare orientation to urban development. (This has been expressed in several documents from WASTE, e.g., Lardinois and van der Klundert 1993). Whereas earlier approaches to assisting pickers focused merely on helping them to leave the occupation, in the late 1980s, the view that waste picking saves resources that would otherwise be disposed of as wastes was incorporated into discussions of the lives of pickers.

From this, the idea of "recognizing" the role of pickers in urban solid waste management evolved. Suggestions for "integrating" pickers into municipal solid waste management are 15-20 years old at least. References to integration appear in guidance manuals for solid waste management (cf. Shrestha & Loan 1995). What is meant by "integration" varies; the main meanings are discussed below.

Recommendations to formalize waste picking are often made without considering the full implications. A humane concern for the welfare of pickers does not resolve some basic dilemmas in the relations of pickers to the requirements of health and of effective waste management

Because the subject of waste pickers touches fundamentally upon social philosophies, and the assumptions of different philosophies vary, there is much scope for debate in the position that I outline here. I welcome such debate and hope that social activists, academics and civil engineers can share their concerns and experiences in moving the discussion of waste picking beyond some of the clichés one encounters in recent discussions.

B. The inevitability of picking in poor cities

Waste picking refers to the process of picking out recyclable/reusable materials from mixed wastes, at gutters, street bins and piles, markets, transfer points, garbage trucks, and garbage dumps (legal and illegal).

Large-scale waste picking is a phenomenon that arises from the conjunction of absolute poverty with free (or very low cost) resources. Waste picking can be easily learnt and does not require literacy; pickers are often actively recruited by waste traders who offer them loans or even accommodation. Very often one finds that an increase in the entry of poor rural migrants to cities is associated with an increase in numbers of waste pickers (cf., in Chinese cities currently).

Picking is likely to decline only when better work for unskilled people is readily available, schooling is accessible for street children, and the demand for dirty and damaged recyclables becomes minimal (i.e., there is little market for cheap goods made of inferior materials).

Of course, there are things that can be done to help individual pickers and families to improve their standards of living and their health (although the activity of picking, per se, cannot be made a healthy occupation). Pickers can be assisted to take up alternative work. These actions do not usually make an impact on the phenomenon of picking in a city. For every picker who is assisted to move into other work, there are likely to be other new rural arrivees or street families who take up the picking work abandoned by the upwardly mobile. This phenomenon has long been observed in projects for street children in developing countries.

C. Resource recovery through source separation

It is important to distinguish waste picking from the recovery of materials through the processes of separation at source and sale to itinerant buyers, waste traders, etc. The trading of clean, separated materials does not pose the health risks of picking, and the work does not carry the stigma of picking. Picking thus stands in basic contradistinction to the recovery of uncontaminated materials by source separation.

If pickers' work is transformed to the handling of clean wastes, (for instance, if former pickers obtain work as itinerant buyers, or collectors of source separated materials) they should not then be referred to as "pickers," since the distinction between picking from mixed wastes and recovery through source separation is of the utmost importance in the philosophy and practice of solid waste management in the developing countries.

Bearing in mind this important distinction helps us to sort out some of the confusion in discussions of the "integration" of picking into solid waste management.

I believe that in many Asian cities more materials, of better quality, are brought to recycling through source separation (i.e. the left-over resources do not become discarded wastes but are kept separate for sale or barter) than through waste picking. Yet, much more attention has been given to the activity of waste picking. There are three main reasons, I think, for this skewed attention: pickers have been studied primarily as examples of extremely disadvantaged urban workers; there are specific programs geared to street children (many of whom resort to picking); and picking intersects visibly with regular solid waste management whereas waste trading does not.

A result of the attention giving to waste picking and the concern for the livelihoods of pickers is that ideas for promoting more thorough source separation of recyclables may be resisted, on the grounds that pickers will be deprived of work. If this occurs, the "integration" of picking comes into conflict with the widely accepted philosophy of solid waste management, which advises source separation as a primary tool in waste reduction.

In any discussion of waste picking in the context of solid waste management and resource recovery, it is important to ask: should the focus be exclusively on picking or are there other activities of resource recovery (for instance, itinerant buying) that influence the amounts of wastes discarded and thus solid waste management? In this case, it is important not to give the impression that resource recovery is performed exclusively through picking. In allocating resources, it may be wiser to give more attention to the activities that are safe and socially acceptable than to the highly problematic activities of picking materials from contaminated mixed waste.

D. What is meant by the integration of pickers into MSWM?

Various statements have been made about "integrating" pickers over the last two decades. There are few examples of actual integration, and the meaning of the term varies. Here are some of the meanings one encounters:

a. Recognizing the dignity of pickers as people and their need for work; tolerating their activities and reducing official harassment of them;

b. Giving social assistance to picker families; educating picker children so they can do other work;

c. Allowing pickers access to windrow compost facilities, in order to reduce the amounts of non-organics in the waste;

d. Employing pickers at recovery facilities, including those at dump sites, to work on conveyer belts;

e. Legalizing picking; requiring the registration of pickers; subjecting them to regulations and laws;

f. Allowing, encouraging or organizing co-operatives or small enterprises of former pickers; allowing these to negotiate access to wastes either for waste trading, or a combination of primary waste collection services and waste trading;

g. Providing job security and special protection to waste pickers; intervening in prices for recyclables to guarantee a basic living wage for pickers.

Obviously, there are significant differences in these meanings. The main difference is in whether there is an intention to routinize or institutionalize picking, even to favour it, or merely to permit or to facilitate this "informal" activity (possibly as an offshoot of contractual work such as primary waste collection).

It is one thing to award "recognition" in the sense of respecting people who do this work, understanding the circumstances which impel them to it (whether as individuals, families or social status groups), and acknowledging that this work saves resources for societies at large, on the one hand, and making waste picking a permanent feature of a society, designating it as a aspect of formal waste management, on the other. When “integration” is loosely used in discussions of policies on pickers, this difference is obscured.

In cities where there are already many people competing to acquire clean wastes for trading, organizing of pickers into cooperatives--a humane undertaking--will almost certainly lead to some friction with those who currently control the clean wastes. Indeed, where such coops have been set up in India, conflicts have been documented (Raman 1994).

Any policy or project that addresses the needs of waste pickers should, in my opinion, be clear on its position with regard to recognition vs. routinization.

E. Transforming the roles of pickers

The projects that have shown real potential to substantially improve the health and the earnings of people who were waste pickers are not those that institutionalize picking, as picking is usually understood. If waste workers handle clean, separated materials, health risks are reduced and the materials are of higher resale value. If pickers are assisted in organizing to get access to clean wastes (for instance, from offices), they become itinerant buyers. (Rahman 1994; Huysman 1994a; Bentley 1986; Nicolaisen et al. 1988). They are no longer pickers.

Work that would qualify as the routinization of picking is when people are employed at garbage transfer stations or compost plants to pick out recyclables from the mixed wastes. If the working conditions are good --there are adequate sanitary facilities, access to a health clinic, hygiene education--then the health risks of this kind of picking might be reduced.

It is preferable to call work at materials recovery facilities, “sorting,” not “picking,” since the waste are delivered among conveyor belts and are often pre-sorted to some extent. But at some compost plants, one may find that the work is truly picking, since workers move among windrows of piled, largely organic wastes, to pick out the larger inorganics. There are few documented instances in Asia of pickers being employed under adequate working conditions at transfer points or compost plants. I have myself never observed acceptable conditions. There are reports, however, of acceptable operations in some Latin American countries (Lardinois, Furedy & Shah, forthcoming).

F. A point of view

I have come to the conclusion that casual, manual recovery of materials from mixed municipal garbage (i.e. street or dump picking) cannot be made truly healthy and socially acceptable. The provision of gloves and boots (the former are rarely used even when given free) and access to sanitary facilities will not eliminate the most significant health risks faced by pickers; health and social services are also needed, and, in most cases, changes in the residential environment. Unless all the equipment and infrastructure is kept in good order, and hygiene is emphasized, picking at compost plants also carries health risks. The provision of facilities would need to be backed up with a great deal of education and monitoring.

In terms of social status, people who are seen to pick out wastes from contaminated accumulations have always been socially stigmatized; such attitudes are very difficult to change as long as the occupation is regarded as "dirty" and associated with poverty.

Organized picking of materials from conveyor belts at dump sites although not unfeasible, would not provide a great deal of work for pickers (supposing that pickers did indeed get these jobs).

And this brings me to another aspect of arguments made for “integrating picking” into solid waste management: that pickers’ incomes will be improved. In actuality, interventions to organize pickers may result in a decrease in family income, if children are diverted from picking.

Furthermore, picking is an "end of the pipe" approach to recovery and as such runs counter to the principle of source separation. Such routinization might divert attention from the macro- and micro-level interventions that can bring about humane and resource conserving cities.

The goal of reducing picking from mixed wastes, which can only be accomplished non-coercively by a combination of substantial socio-economic change (the significant reduction of poverty-the virtual disappearance of absolute poverty) and maximum source separation, is not incompatible with projects to assist individuals and families of waste pickers; such projects will be called for as long as there are waste pickers, just as there is a continuing need for assistance for street people or child workers while societies work to eliminate inhumane living and working conditions. Social agencies (whether of government or NGOs/CBOs) should continue to assist waste pickers in every possible way.

For these reasons, I believe that the routinization of picking for short term gains in resource recovery and working conditions is not a wise policy. Emphasis should be placed on the recovery of uncontaminated recyclables.

As Diana Mitlin and David Satterthwaite pointed out, in the background paper for the Sustainable Cities workshops at Global Forum '94, environmental improvements often mean that some categories of workers "lose out," and sustainable development implies that ecological and health goals be moderated by humane concerns for the "losers" (Mitlin & Satterthwaite 1994, pp. 22-26). This does not mean that unsatisfactory occupations should be protected from change.

It is to be hoped that those who work for the welfare of waste pickers can cooperate with the environmentalists and planners who are concerned with more effective waste recovery to resolve the issues of employment, social status and public health.


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