COVID-19 is a threat to waste pickers. Here’s how to help them

waste picker

(Credit: Unsplash)

This article is brought to you thanks to the collaboration of The European Sting with the World Economic Forum.

Author: Douglas Broom, Senior Writer, Formative Content


  • “Waste warriors” need immediate protection during the COVID-19 crisis. And a longer-term plan to formalize the sector must get underway.
  • The post-COVID world offers an opportunity to add value to our economies and planet through comprehensive waste management approaches – all of which start with the people who work (often informally) in the sector.

If someone were to ask me who I admire most within the circular economy, I immediately have an answer – those in the collection process in developing countries: the entrepreneurial, hardworking, knowledgeable and inherently sustainable waste collectors across the world.

There is no doubt, waste collection is important wherever you are. It’s as important for me in Texas as it is for my colleague Han in Singapore, Carolina in Brazil and Adwoa in South Africa. The need to dispose of things we use is something that inevitably binds us – wherever we are, whoever we are.

Every single day I reflect on the challenge of waste, the hope for a circular economy and the actions I need to take in both my work and personal life. Moving towards the ideal state of a world without waste sometimes means looking into new technology, infrastructure and processes, but always involves people.

Waste pickers transform their communities by turning waste into value.

Waste warriors

These waste warriors account for 15% to 20% of collection globally. That is huge, especially when you consider where much of their income comes from recycling. Waste pickers salvage both reusable and recyclable materials that have been discarded by others and sell the material to provide an income for themselves and their families. They are uniquely skilled at identifying and collecting valuable waste – either buying waste directly from households and organizations or picking materials directly from streets, landfills and informal dumpsites.

Workers separate the materials and take them to the proper recycling facilities. This provides a stream of easy-to-process recyclable materials that can be used again and again in the same and different applications. Globally, one of the challenges of recycling is the lack of knowledge on what can be recycled and how to recycle it. Waste pickers – who often operate in places where improved waste collection and recycling rates are needed most – fill the knowledge and infrastructure gaps on the front line. They keep waste out of our environment and push us towards a more circular economy.

COVID-19: an existential threat to the circular economy

Right now, the estimated 15 million waste pickers who are active in the world are facing deep and life-altering challenges amidst the COVID-19 pandemic. As instability rises with increased uncertainty, these workers are among the most vulnerable. They often live in areas where healthcare and hygienic necessities are difficult to access. Many of them are part of the informal economy, without access to insurance, health services or other social safety-net programmes.

The pandemic environment is putting their lives and livelihoods at risk. In some regions they must continue to work, often without the proper protective equipment, jeopardizing their health. In other places, recycling programmes are temporarily shut down for sanitation purposes and workers are left unemployed for the duration of the shutdown without reliable income outside of potential government assistance. Extra income during this time could prevent workers from needing to seek out other unsafe jobs during this crisis and allows them to get back to work in the waste sector as soon as safely possible.

Image: World Bank

How we are stepping up

We have proud partnerships across the world working directly with waste pickers. When this crisis arose, I knew we could step up and help. Together with our partners and other organizations supporting waste collectors, we came together to launch a global fund dedicated to supporting this vital and underserved community.

We encourage companies and their employees to leverage the fund to help provide resources for waste pickers impacting their immediate safety and health including masks, gloves and handwashing stations. Additionally, food rations and supplementary income will be provided in places where they are unable to go to work.

Circular economy

What is a circular economy?

The global population is expected to reach close to 9 billion people by 2030 – inclusive of 3 billion new middle-class consumers.This places unprecedented pressure on natural resources to meet future consumer demand.

A circular economy is an industrial system that is restorative or regenerative by intention and design. It replaces the end-of-life concept with restoration, shifts towards the use of renewable energy, eliminates the use of toxic chemicals and aims for the elimination of waste through the superior design of materials, products, systems and business models.

Nothing that is made in a circular economy becomes waste, moving away from our current linear ‘take-make-dispose’ economy. The circular economy’s potential for innovation, job creation and economic development is huge: estimates indicate a trillion-dollar opportunity.

The Circular Economy | World Economic Forum

The World Economic Forum has collaborated with the Ellen MacArthur Foundation for a number of years to accelerate the Circular Economy transition through Project MainStream – a CEO-led initiative that helps to scale business driven circular economy innovations.

Join our project, part of the World Economic Forum’s Shaping the Future of Environment and Natural Resource Security System Initiative, by contacting us to become a member or partner.

Working towards a formalized waste sector

The fund is aspirational, providing a base that can improve the lives and livelihoods of waste pickers in the long-term across the globe, ensuring a sense of hope and pride and providing them with a real opportunity to integrate into their local communities.

If we can move toward formalizing this waste sector and providing more resources for the workers, it will truly be a win for individuals, regions and the world.

The post-COVID world will look different in many ways, with people potentially having a greater appreciation for the need for personal waste collection and the opportunity to add value to our economies and planet through comprehensive waste management approaches – all of which starts with our waste picker colleagues. This presents an opportunity and a challenge for organizations supporting and working with waste pickers. We need to take this time to elevate these workers and continue building a system and a structure that supports their needs and status in their communities.

Waste pickers are the heartbeat of a circular economy, and we all need them for a healthy and sustainable world. But right now, they need us.

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