The RSIS Centre for Non-Traditional Security (NTS) Studies' Blog

Waste picking to waste managing in Asian cities

In a recent NTS Alert on urban vulnerabilities, it was noted that the informal economic sector plays a significant role in supporting the formal economic sector and thus deserves greater attention in climate change adaptation and disaster risk reduction initiatives. Waste-pickers make up one such section in the informal sector and are commonly found in cities of developing countries.

Similar to other members of the informal sector, many waste-pickers have moved from rural to urban areas in search of employment, but have largely ended up living in slum areas or even in garbage landfills. These individuals make a living from collecting items such as used plastic cups, bottles and scrap steel from the landfills to sell to recycling plants.

However, such a practice is not sustainable in the long run. First, the practice does little to get waste-pickers out of the poverty cycle and the social and health risks associated with it. A vivid example of this would be the landslide that occurred in the Payatas landfill in Philippines in 2000. Secondly,  it is not an optimal use of energy as a substantial proportion of the trash (up to 40 per cent in the case of Jakarta) collected cannot be recycled as it is contaminated with other waste. Third, the practice does not tackle the root causes of waste management, which include the lack of proper recycling and composting facilities, ineffective coordination of waste disposal companies and limited public awareness and action on reducing waste.

As such, while landfills will continue to be a necessity for many of these developing Asian cities in the short to medium term, there is a need to complement it with other waste management solutions namely recycling measures and – more recently – converting waste into biogas as a source of energy.  Not only will this reduce dependency on conventional sources of energy but also reduce the amount of waste sent to landfills, potentially engage waste-pickers to manage the process and reduce electricity bills for the poor. More importantly, governments such as in Indonesia and the Philippines have already began the process of giving more attention to waste management at the policy level.

While these developments are commendable, there is still a long way to go in empowering waste-pickers to secure better health and social welfare. So far, much of the social and health needs of waste-pickers are also currently being met by NGOs. Some have created social enterprises that produce upcycled bags and accessories from the trash collected by the waste-pickers. Others have sought to take on a more advocacy role in lobbying governments for better workers’ rights, such as the Alliance for Indian Waster-pickers’ efforts that has recently voiced their requests to have waste-pickers registered so as to be applicable for state welfare benefits.

Given the immense task at hand, such incremental change must be sustained for the long term, rather than just based on donor project funding. More must also be done in introducing waste-pickers to attaining new skills to be able to have alternative economic livelihood options. An inability to progress to this level would likely leave this informal sector workers to continue to be doing (literally) the dirty work that no one else wants to do.

This blog post has been written by Sofiah JamilSofiah is an Adjunct Research Associate at the RSIS Centre for Non—Traditional Security (NTS) Studies, and a PhD candidate at the Australian National University.


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