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Newsletter and Technical Publications
<Municipal Solid Waste Management>

Sound Practices
Waste reduction

1.2.4 Sound practices for cities of developing countries

Foundations for sound practices

The great variety among cities and towns in developing countries means that each place must study its waste characteristics and assess local waste reduction potential. Throughout these regions, urban places fall along a continuum from high recycling (e.g., Calcutta, Cairo) to very low recycling potential. (Typically the latter are remote islands or enclosed countries visited by affluent tourists, or having a military base, e.g., Suva, Guam, St. Kitts. Remote islands with low levels of consumption are characterized by high levels of waste reuse, e.g., Commander Islands, Aleutians, where even washed-up drift nets are crocheted into shopping bags).


Primary tools for municipalities in developing countries to use in promoting waste reduction and materials recovery
  1. Promote educational campaigns for (a) public support of waste reduction and recycling (especially as individual economic incentives weaken) and (b) reduction of the stigma attached to waste work.
  2. Study waste streams (quantity and composition analyses), recovery/recycling systems, markets for recyclables, and problems of existing practices to decide where there may be a facilitative/regulatory role for the municipal authority.
  3. Support source separation, recovery, and trading networks with information-sharing (especially of market information) and forums of stakeholders.
  4. Facilitate small enterprises and public-private partnerships by new or amended regulations for cooperatives, loans to small-scale businesses, amendment of inhibiting zoning and control regulations, low-rent space for stockpiling depots, etc.
  5. Assist waste pickers to move out of manual picking by instituting retraining programs or subsidization of sorting/redemption centers; control harassment of itinerant buyers and waste dealers by police.
  6. After consulting the major stakeholders, advocate, where advisable, selective waste reduction legislation on packaging reduction, product redesign, and coding of plastics.
  7. Export recyclables if there is high demand in neighboring countries and non-toxicity is assured.
  8. Promote innovation to create new uses for goods and materials that would otherwise be discarded after initial use.

Understanding where a city or town is located on this continuum is the starting point for developing tools to promote waste reduction. The main tools available to municipal governments in promoting waste reduction and materials recovery are listed in the accompanying box.

In any of these actions, municipal departments can enter into partnerships with environmental and community organizations, whose members are keen to reduce waste collection and disposal problems. Many examples of such cooperation are being developed. For instance, in Bangalore, the Bangalore City Corporation has provided the land for community-based composting and vermiculture.

All places should undertake some action on points 1 and 2. High and medium recycling cities will additionally explore 3, 4, and 5. Some policies such as waste reduction legislation must be selectively tried according to the local context. Isolated places with very low recycling potential are virtually limited to exploring the opportunity for exporting high-value recyclables and vigorously promoting reuse.

 
Policy emphases for waste reduction by recycling level, developing countries
 

Confronting problems in existing practices

In supporting the existing practices of waste reduction, urban managers and community organizations must not overlook the many problems of traditional waste recovery and recycling systems.

Informal sector entrepreneurs and workers frequently lack the technologies to optimize recycling methods and to deal with new waste materials. They are also usually denied the assistance in financing (e.g., bank loans) that large, established firms can access as a matter of course. The working conditions in recovery and recycling are very bad, especially for the lowest-level workers, such as women sorting or picking materials. Small entrepreneurs and itinerant waste buyers work under others handicaps, such as harassment and extortion from local authorities and larger enterprises. Waste picking is abhorred almost universally, but very little is done to assist waste pickers.

 

Informal Waste Trading Enterprises
Informal waste trading enterprises must process materials to get the best prices. Simple machines and techniques could improve returns and working conditions.
(credit: Ben van Bronckhorst)

Recovery and recycling, although basic principles of sustainable development, impose significant health risks on those involved, especially when carried out informally. This is particularly so in places where sanitary facilities are nonexistent or deficient. Industries using recycled feedstock are in many cases more polluting than those using virgin materials. Such industries tend to be small-scale in developing countries, so they are often not subject to environmental regulation. Environmental improvement must encompass assistance to such small industries. The potential of small enterprises to contribute to waste reduction, and the kind of support that would to some extent “level the playing field” for them vis-ĀEvis large formal firms are described briefly in the next section, with particular reference to the experience of Andean countries.

Facilitating small enterprises, cooperatives, and public-private partnerships

Latin America
Cooperatives and small-scale enterprises that buy and sell recyclable materials have had some success in parts of Latin America. They have beneficial environmental and social impacts. Cooperatives usually achieve stability in cities where the decline of informal networks of waste buyers and traders has left gaps in recovery systems.

Small enterprises and cooperatives need external support to start up and to be successful. It is helpful if this support comes, at least in part, from the local government. Ideally, the local government should provide a location where the recyclable materials can be stored and sorted more thoroughly before being sold to wholesale dealers or factories. Coordination with factories using secondary materials greatly helps the efficient flow of materials. These enterprises also require training and follow-up support. This is best done by a nongovernmental organization (NGO), although in some cases training by recycling industries is also possible. Eventually, an intermediate point between assistance and independence may be found.

Most published examples of this type of organization are found in the Andean countries. The impetus for forming cooperatives came from NGOs working with waste pickers who had been displaced from dump picking as Òcontrolled landfillsÓ were introduced. So many people lost their means of earning a living by their exclusion from dumps that governments (in some cases, even the central government) supported efforts to create alternative employment. Local stakeholders, particularly industries, were willing to collaborate (e.g., Bogot&aacuate; and Mexico City).

The first cooperatives dealt with clean materials that were abundantly available from industries but were not being recycled because no one had tapped these resources. Once established as middle dealers, the waste-trading cooperatives expanded to door-to-door buying of source-separated recyclables from homes and shops. As they are more organized and efficient than the individual itinerant waste buyers, cooperatives have been able to find a niche in recovery networks where independent itinerant buyers have declined.

The advantages of this organization are that, first, the enterprise or cooperative has much more negotiating leverage with the intermediary or the receiving industrial plant than individual dealerships have. Thus, their profits tend to be higher. Second, as part of an organization, workers receive better training; they can obtain health benefits and operating loans routinely, whereas the itinerant buyers are usually very dependent on a client-patron relationship with a particular dealer.

Where these cooperatives are multiplying (in countries like Colombia and Peru) they are reviving the earlier traditions of separating and selling recyclables. Displaced pickers who have joined the coops are doing socially acceptable work under much better working conditions. The materials they sell to industry are much cleaner, which reduces the further cleaning (and consequent pollution) required by the recycling factories.

Urban management analysts in Latin America agree that such small recovery enterprises (and itinerant buyers and small dealers) are more economically and technically viable than municipally managed source separation and curbside recovery. They use human-powered or semi-motorized front-loaded carts, which are far cheaper and less polluting than trucks. The administrative costs are less than for municipal management. Also, the collectors are members of poor communities; thus, jobs are created where they are most needed.

In summary, assistance to small enterprises and informal workers in waste recovery, trading, and recycling can enhance waste reduction for a whole city. At the same time, working conditions in small undertakings can be improved and adverse environmental impacts reduced. The kind of assistance required is not costly compared to the breaks that are given to big businesses, while the potential benefits for the urban environment are considerable.

Experience in other regions
There have been many attempts to form cooperatives and small enterprises in waste recovery elsewhere. The best documented case is of the recovery and composting enterprises run by families of Zabbaleen in Cairo. There, a small industries program was assisted at the Manshiet Nasser Zabbaleen settlement. There were loans for small processing units and skill training, a literacy school, and guidance from a management specialist. The families were able to improve the quality of the reprocessed materials, to improve their income, to establish a community organization to run a loans program, and to sort and process much more material than before. The assistance was given for about three years, through a local environmental consulting firm. WASTE Consultants (of the Netherlands) concluded from an independent evaluation that: such communities do not and cannot spontaneously set up industrial establishments without some form of external stimulus, regardless of the potential that may exist. Their general advice regarding technical programs to assist waste sorting and processing is: initiate the work through pilot programs that are highly visible; make it as inexpensive as possible; and tune the program to the potential of the market.

Metro Manila provides another example. Waste dealers in several cities have been enabled to form cooperatives by a women's organization. In this case, it was not a matter of creating enterprises, as the waste dealerships existed, but they have been helped to expand and improve in efficiency by gaining access to small loans by registering as a cooperative. The Metro Manila Women's Balikatan Movement has undertaken community education for source separation, and the Centre for Advanced Philippine Studies has created a database to facilitate communication between the enterprises and factories requiring materials.

In Asia and Africa many NGOs are assisting waste pickers to organize, and in some cases they aim to move pickers into the work of buying source-separated materials. An example is the cooperative supported by the Self-employed Women's Association in Ahmedabad, India. The experience with organizing pickers suggests that it is difficult to attain a stable and profitable organization of the lowest workers in waste recovery systems; usually these groups require the continuing support of NGOs.

The scope for creating small enterprises (with a selective management or workforce, such as former pickers) that must compete in existing networks of waste recovery depends on how well-established and resilient are the existing economic actors (itinerant waste buyers and waste traders). In Asian cities, and countries like Egypt and Turkey, where almost all available wastes are already purchased, creation of cooperatives will tend to displace less efficient workers, so there will be no employment gains, nor would there necessarily be any reduction in waste picking.

Cooperatives work best when formed of workers and managers who are not illiterate, who speak the same language, and who live in the same area. These are constraints upon the spread of cooperatives in some large, multilingual cities in Asia and Africa. It would appear that the rise of cooperatives in the Andean cities occurred because the earlier waste trading networks declined and industrial waste exchange could not keep up with the rapid growth of industries. Thus, if the same conditions hold, there may not be strong reasons in West, South, and Southeast Asia for promoting cooperative organization of waste trading on a large scale. But the existing enterprises in waste recovery in those areas would certainly benefit from the type of governmental and community support that these have received in some Latin American countries.

Addressing waste picking

The picking out of recyclables from mixed garbage at street bins, transfer stations, and dumps is very common in many developing countries. This practice is particularly risky where municipal wastes contain human excreta, and biomedical and industrial wastes, and where pickers do not have protective clothing or access to washing facilities. In addition, children and pregnant women are numerous among pickers.

Most municipal authorities do not have the capacity to enforce prohibition of picking, which is a sensitive topic in some cities where many thousands of poor people survive on earnings from this activity. In addition, very poor people obtain some of their basic needs from garbage. City administrations thus face difficult issues with regard to picking. The following actions have been suggested by NGOs and social activists:

  • subsidize protective clothing to reduce the health risks of picking (unfortunately, such clothing is usually sold by those to whom it is given);
  • provide access to basic health care and inoculations against tetanus ;
  • regulate picking, by the provision of designated picking areas at transfer stations and dumps;
  • enable pickers to organize cooperatives to improve their earnings and working conditions; and
  • control harassment of street pickers and itinerant buyers (since such harassment tends to increase dump picking).

There are numerous examples of partial attempts to achieve such goals, but no detailed evaluation of the results.

Cooperative organization has helped some pickers to become buyers of source-separated, clean materials, particularly in the Andean countries. Many NGOs are assisting picker families in Africa and Asia; in fact, no large city is without some examples. The readiness with which materials taken from mixed garbage can be cleaned and dried can significantly improve the prices that pickers obtain for them, and can reduce the health hazards to which pickers are exposed. NGOs are therefore developing simple cleaning and processing techniques.

Dump picking is more hazardous than street picking. There are no reports of significant reduction in health risks for dump pickers except when there have been substantial improvements in their basic living conditions. The provision of gloves and boots to pickers in Calcutta and other places failed, as they sold the clothes and continued to work as before. Schemes for setting up conveyer belt plants at dump sites to facilitate sorting (as was done in Europe in the 19th century) are often discussed. Mexico City and Ciudad Juarez have built such plants. In Seoul, on the other hand, NGOs have assisted dumpside communities more broadly, with housing, sanitary facilities, medical care, and education. It is possible that establishing designated picking areas at dumps, away from the tipping face, would help dump management. In fact, at large dumps, pickers usually cooperate among themselves and with staff to avoid chaos and accidents.

Technology decisions in solid waste management also affect the feasibility of waste picking for poorer families who depend on this source of income. Efficient collection of garbage in closed containers means that more recyclables are deposited in dumps, albeit in a much dirtier and damaged condition. As a result, more people resort to dump picking. Cities with closed MSW collection systems (i.e., collection from lidded containers, in covered vehicles) and substantial numbers of poor people often have dumps controlled by gangs or entrepreneurs, who exploit the pickers. The use of compactor collection trucks and compaction and cover at dump sites damages many materials and renders them useless.

While societies should do everything possible to reduce the attractiveness of picking, it must be recognized that the decline of this activity has occurred in the past only when the general standard of living and employment opportunities for low-skilled people have reduced poverty and unemployment. Help for waste pickers must extend to their living conditions and primary health care; assistance confined to clothing or facilities at dumps may give insignificant returns in terms of health. Sorting sites, access to water, and some simple drying and baling machines are facilities that NGOs or municipal administrations can help picker groups to attain.

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