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Piles of rubbish-1

Waste pickers like Hamid are on the frontline of the world’s rubbish problem

Hamid Ali has seen some of the worst of the impacts of plastic pollution in the area of northern Bangladesh where he lives.

Hamid Ali is a waste picker, one of at least 20 million people around the world who earn an income collecting, sorting, recycling and selling materials that have been thrown away.1 He is on the frontline of dealing with the world’s massive rubbish problem. Waste pickers collect approximately 60 per cent of all the plastic gathered for recycling globally.2 In some countries, they provide the only form of solid waste collection. Without them, the problem of plastic pollution in low- and middle-income countries would be far worse.3

Hamid Ali Rubbish Campaign
Hamid Ali is a waste picker, one of the 20 million people who collect, sort and sell materials for recycling or reuse. Upholding their rights, and supporting their work, is vital.

For Hamid Ali, a typical day involves a morning spent collecting waste materials, then, with his wife, separating and sorting the items before taking what he’s collected to a trader to sell.

“Selling the collection I get some money and with that I buy daily commodities like rice, lentils and vegetables. I save the extra money at home.”

At 75, Hamid Ali is reliant on this work to support his family, and he also sees it as a valuable contribution to his community.

“It is important, because it keeps the environment good, in towns and in villages. It is good for people’s health. It is good for my health also as I do physical work. When the places where they live are clean, people tend to fall sick less and remain healthy.”

This physical work is also easier than it used to be. Hamid Ali has a leg injury which meant it was painful travelling about on a manual tricycle to collect waste. With support from one of Tearfund’s partners, he was able to install a motor in his vehicle. He can now travel up to 24 kilometres a day.

“Now my body feels very comfortable … I can go a long distance for collection; previously I had to collect from the nearby areas only.” As a consequence, his income has increased.

Piles of rubbish-2

Waste pickers like Hamid Ali make a tremendous contribution to the fight against plastic pollution, cleaning up their communities and enabling companies to meet their collection targets. But despite the vital role they play in the fight against plastic pollution, the work of waste pickers often goes unrecognised and they suffer a range of severe human rights abuses, including stigma, discrimination, dangerous working conditions and low pay.

It is important, because it keeps the environment good, in towns and in villages. It is good for people’s health...

Hamid Ali

Justice for waste pickers and recognition of their vast experience and expertise need to be at the centre of negotiations around a Global Plastics Treaty. This includes a call to include a just transition as a core obligation. This would mean that:

  • before rolling out bans on, or reductions in, plastic materials, or making changes to collection and recycling infrastructure, plans must be in place to ensure that waste pickers and other workers in the informal waste sector are supported to make a transition to better livelihood opportunities.
  • waste pickers are able to collect the remaining plastic waste, through a requirement for producers to use highly recyclable materials and provisions on integration into collection schemes.
  • waste pickers themselves should be involved in the decision-making processes for all of the above.

Hamid Ali has a message for the world’s leaders as the treaty process continues. “What I want to say is it is better not to produce plastic. It’s affecting our country, so it should be completely banned. We will use other bags for carrying daily commodities from markets that we don’t have to discard and they can be stored for reuse. When we bring plastic bags from markets, they are discarded and that increases litter in the locality. So it’s better to stop the production of plastic.”

1. International Labour Office (2013) Sustainable development, decent work and green jobs

2. Lau, Winnie W. Y. et al (2020) Evaluating scenarios toward zero plastic pollution

3. Medina, Martin (2010) ‘Scrap and Trade: Scavenging Myths’, Our World, United Nations University, Tokyo, 15 March 20

Emma Halgren is Content Lead at Tearfund Australia.