March 28, 2009

Things made from plastic packaging

While a lot of the trend in using trash for "creative consumption" is questionable, there are some great things being made especially with plastic trash. For example, these cool umbrellas made out of those brightly colored juice packs and detergent pouches (we don't use them here in the US but they are a HUGE problem elsewhere) by Plastic Works in Indonesia and distributed in the US by Monsoon Vermont. "Ttrashion" can't really be considered within a zero waste paradigm, after all, it only delays the inevitable disposal in a landfill (Royce), but it does employ people in the collection and processing of waste, and cleverly transfers the waste issue from developing countries back to the developed world via consumption.

"** FOR STORY SLUGGED: INDONESIA TRASH FASHION ** An employee of Plastic Works, a company which makes bags, wallets, and other accessories, works at his sewing machine Friday, June 27, 2008 in Jakarta, Indonesia. Used detergent labels and toothpaste tubes from Indonesia are going from landfills to fashion frills on bags and wallets sold in Singapore, Australia and the United States. (AP Photo/Ed Wray)"

On another note, the production employees shown in this photo essay are all men. This follows the findings from studies on informal sector development (WIEGO, Chen, et. al). The better paid, more "technical" jobs (like sewing) go to men while the lower jobs (like collecting the packaging from the landfill) are more likely to be done by women and children. In developing an informal sector be sure to include career opportunities and training opportunities for women. See the SEWA model for how to organize poor women in the informal sector for collective power.

March 20, 2009

The good, the bad and the ugly?

Blogger and social critic Gerry Popplestone recently commented on the current state of waste, recycling and reuse from a consumer's perspective. He gives a few examples from the developing world, including a great example of passive integrated waste "management" in Brazil where the scavengers work so effectively that the people have no concern about littering, don't sort their garbage and yet they have one of the highest rates of aluminum can recycling thanks to "homeless" scavengers. These collectors can make a decent living at collecting cans, the author citing an AP press article from January 3, 2000, he writes about one case where the scavenger makes almost twice the median wage in Brazil ($260/week compared to $140).

In an older article on scavengers, he questions the sensationalism around scavenging, including statistics inflation by NGOs seeking funding and resources. The author asserts that formal waste collectors no longer have an adversarial relationship with scavengers, and view them as useful contributions to the process of waste management. Oh, how I wish it were true! He read Wilson, Whiteman & Tormin, and also some of Medina's articles, but apparently didn't see where Medina classifies the four levels of municipal response to scavengers, only one of which is supportive! In many places scavengers are exploited, or worse, repressed by those in power, whether the municipality or the private sector (with the muni turning a blind eye).

He refers to the sa leng system of informal collectors in Bangkok. Quoting a World Bank study, 70% of Bangkok's wastes are collected by a combination of both formal and informal sector workers. It doesn't say how much money the muni saves by not paying the informal workers but it does say a muni collector makes about 700 baht/day ($19) and there are approximately 15,000 sa leng plus 4,000 scavengers, which would come out to a savings of US $361,000 per day! Many articles, including this one, do not stress this enough. Not only are the scavengers providing a public good (public health) in the form of collecting wastes, and also an environmental good by reducing the waste , but they are also saving the municipality a lot of money in collection, transport and disposal costs.

The art of garbage

" do see families working, even living, on the dumps. I am not sure that they actually decide to go to the dump to sort through the waste for anything worth recycling. I think they go because they have no choice."
- Christopher Jennings, IADB

While the reason people start scavenging is most likely out of lack of opportunity (Portes' neoliberal viewpoint, and one upheld by many, including Wilson and Medina), they might not continue working the dumps if the pay wasn't better than what they could find as unskilled laborers elsewhere. The recent downturn in the recycling market is driving families in China to return to subsistence farming as their relatively meager incomes are half what they were just a few months ago. In other places, organized waste workers can make up to 3 times the minimum wage (Medina) and through collectives, they control sorting and storing facilities, and have improved working conditions.

image from the top of the dump at San Pedro Sula, buzzards and people compete for a good find

Buzzards and people compete for sustenance at the San Pedro Sula dump.

"The environmental impact of unregulated dumps is considerable. The most immediate impact, the one that you notice first, is the smell. The rotting organic matter attracts insects and rodents, both transmitters of disease. As the matter decomposes it creates other problems, such as organic acids that leach out and pollute rivers and underground sources of water. The decomposition also creates methane, the worst of the greenhouse houses responsible for global warming. The methane often results in uncontrolled fires within the body of the garbage, which are almost impossible to extinguish until the rains come.
- Christopher Jennings, IADB

Taking everything into account – resource recovery, public health, economic opportunity, environmental protection – it seems that the best long term solution is integrated management for waste reduction. This could be achieved through a number of supportive policies including encouraging informal collection through concessions directly with scavengers, helping scavengers set up enterprises to turn waste into resource (food for livestock, creative consumer goods, building materials), and encouraging waste worker organizations to improve working conditions at the dumpsite.

Medina: Scavenging in historical perspective

Scavenging in historical perspective

Scavenging has existed for many centuries and there is a strong connection between scavenging and the mainstream (formal) economy. Rag pickers played a key role in paper making for hundreds of years until paper moved from cotton- to pulp-based production in the 20th century.

Waste is a valuable resource throughout history. Scavenging has been a response to resource scarcity, which was the driving force of informal collection, recycling and disposal up through the 19th Century (in the developed world). It has also been an adaptive response to poverty and lack of economic opportunity, particularly for migrants in rapidly urbanizing cities, not just recently (as seen in the developing world) but throughout American history (see p. 42). Scavenging in this period of industrial and urban development is also a response to resource shortages as industrial demand increased. Three factors drive the informal waste economy: increased urban population leads to increased waste; increased population density means there are fewer places to put the waste; lots of people are willing to do this work (scarcity of other options and potential economic gain from scavenging).

5 types of activities in 19c:

  1. informal, unorganized unregulated collection from public areas and streets
  2. scavengers as refuse collectors (cities lacked formalized collection). this has two contexts, resource recovery/recycling and public service (maintaining public order)
  3. sorting plants (NYC - built plants between collection and disposal where people would sort the waste - at first they did this for rights to the trash at no fee, eventually a fee was charged for access to the waste).
  4. itinerant waste peddlers
  5. at open dumps (scavengers paid to pick over the garbage, recovering up to 35%, saving disposal costs and providing revenue through the fees).

Scavenging/informal sector participation in waste management fell out of favor in the early 20th century in the developed world. In the argument between sanitation (public health) and resource recovery, given the technology available at the end of the 19th century and scientific knowledge of the time, sanitation won out. Cities banned or discouraged salvaging, particularly on open dumps, and the strong ties between scavenging and resource dependent enterprise became weaker, especially as it became cheaper to use primary (virgin) feed stocks, and uniformity of inputs became more critical in mass production.

At the end of the 20th century the environmental impact of resource extraction and wasted resources became more known. Recycling is now seen as a critical piece not only of resource recovery, but cost savings as municipalities divert waste from filling expensive landfills, and recover costs by selling valuable commodities such as paper and aluminum. Integrated waste management (informal collection and scavenging along side techno-managerial approaches) is now seen as a very effective means to resource recovery and waste reduction.

High market rates for recovered materials drives municipalities and scavengers to resource recovery at the end of the 20th century. Aluminum and paper, in particular, have a high market value. Municipalities in developed countries build up expensive capital (technology) in the form of MRFs, collection vehicles, sanitary landfills, and look at recycling as a way to recover costs.

Scavenging increases during crisis such as war or economic crisis (see p 46-47 for specific examples).

Given the technology that we now have available, scavenging has once again become a viable option, particularly for low-income cities that may not have the municipal budget to set up costly collection, recycling and disposal facilities. In these areas scavengers can facilitate collection, can provide valuable feedstocks to local industry and can help divert wastes from rapidly growing landfills.


In modern cities, scavenging poses a threat to cost recovery. Cities invest large sums of money in establishing the facilities for recycling, and scavenging renders these facilities useless, and removes valuable materials from the cost recovery stream.
This sets up an adversarial (competitive) relationship between informal and formal sector actors and those with power (the city) often win out. Cities enact laws to limit scavenging from public and private bins. In many ways it is in the developing world's "best interests" (cost recovery/profit) to advance and perpetuate the image of scavengers/dumpster divers as dirty, scary, marginal people, and promote the use of low-labor high-capital approaches.

If the context for scavenging is as a response to lack of economic opportunity/poverty, then as poverty decreases there is no reason to scavenge. For integrated systems, there has to be both short term goals (poverty alleviation) and long term ones (resource recovery/environmental protection) to drive policies that will have a long-term effect on waste reduction while also meeting economic development goals.

March 14, 2009

Medina: Theoretical Debates on Informal Economy and Scavenging

Theoretical Debates on Informal Economy and Scavenging

Early research on scavenging came out of marginality theory but early researchers argued that informal scavengers had weak or non-existent ties to the formal economy (Lomnitz 1975). But, according to Medina, they only did observational research and only considered scavenging for self-consumption, therefore ties to the formal sector would be unnecessary.

Most important contributions to the field of studying waste scavenging were Birkbeck and Sicular.

Birkbeck: Finds a strong link between scavengers and formal economy. Scavengers provide raw materials (particularly paper in 1979) to formal sector paper mills. Scavengers are part of an exploitative capitalist system. Qualitative study using observation, interviews of scavengers, middlemen and industry execs.

Sicular: contradicts Birkbeck finding that scavenging is not part of the exploitative capitalist system, but is dependent on it (exists outside of the system), and is a form of peasant production (hunter-gatherer labor process).

Medina: Theoretical Perspectives on Scavenging, The Informal Economy

From Medina, M. The World's Scavengers: Salvaging for Sustainable Consumption and Production. Lanham, MD: Alta Mira (2007)

Chapter 1: Theoretical Perspectives on Scavenging

Medina proposes that three main theoretical perspectives emerge from the literature on the informal economy and globalization.

Sectoral Approach (dualistic models such "bazaar economy" vs. "firm economy" and "upper circuit" vs. "lower circuit"). This perspectives was the primary basis for ILO and WorldBank initiatives to "'shrink' the developing countries' 'traditional' sectors and expand their 'modern' ones" by promoting production for export. Authors:
• C. Geertz 1963
• T. McGee 1979
• Hart
• M. Santos 1979
• G. Germani 1973

Dependence Theory. In globalization there is division of labor between countries. Capitalist-industrial countries are at the core and benefit most. Underdeveloped/undeveloped countries remain marginalized/peripheral and are the global losers. Core countries manufacture industrial goods while peripheral countries supply materials. [Obviously, this theory has some flaws as currently underdeveloped countries are providing the low-cost manufacturing as well as the raw materials] new theories show developing country manufacturing functions either as import substitution or as labor-intensive manufacturing for export. Authors:
• F. Cardoso: 1969
• R. Prebisch **
• Gunder Frank 1970 - resources are extracted from periphery to core in the process of capitalist development.
• J. Perlman 1976 - poor are not marginal but integral to mainstream economy/society (study of favelas in Rio) **
• I Wallerstein 1974 - world system theory (world is unit of analysis)
• S. Amin 1974

Modes of Production Approach (Marxist basis - "radical theorists") informal and formal modes of production are locked in an exploitative domination and subordination relationship. Labor surplus in the informal economy keeps wages low in the formal economy, allowing for resource extraction by the wealthy capitalist industrialists (society):
• P. Souza 1980
• Portes (Portes, Castells & Benton) 1989 - neomarxist - this is a dominant view of informal economy today (see WSJ article) where people react to lack of jobs in formal sector by turning to informal employment (and are then exploited by industry).

Challenge is to look at both external structural barriers to development as well as internal barriers to development/growth such as low productivity, monopolies/monopsonies (or any free-market failures), low investment of profits back into the local market/community, and government expenditures.

Continuum Approach: the reality is that there is a continuum between wage work and self-employment:
• R. Bromley and C. Gerry (1979): Four categories of "casual" work are true self-employment, dependent work, disguised wage work, short-term wage work.

Neoliberal Approach
• Hernando DeSoto (1990): "the informal economy is the people's spontaneous response to the state's incapacity to satisfy the basic needs of the impoverished masses."

March 12, 2009

Wasted waste

The economic crisis has rendered what was, not too long ago, useful into a growing environmental burden. According to this International Herald Tribune article, China is now turning away what was once a valuable commodity, other people's trash. US exports of recyclables are down 50-70% since 2007 and incomes for recyclers in China have also plummeted. Extended family income dropped from $735 per month to only $360, sending former farmers back to the countryside where subsistence farming is at least a stable life.

March 10, 2009

Stung Meanchey Landfill, a.k.a. "Smokey Mountain" - Phnom Penh, Cambodia

Another example of the effect of little or no government support for scavenging, the open dump site in Phnom Penh, referred to as " Smokey Mountain" is a "home" to hundreds of workers and families. Chronic respiratory and skin diseases are the result of methane and hazardous chemical exposure, as well as open fires on the landfill. The images reinvorce the need for better integration and support for informal waste workers worldwide.

Informal waste workers save many municipalities enormous amounts of money in resource recovery, diverting waste from landfills, and in some areas through collection, "in Buenos Aires, informal waste collectors known as "scavengers" recover 9 - 17% of municipal waste, representing an estimated savings for the municipality of $30,000 USD to $70,000 USD each day." (see article for statistical sources)

March 9, 2009

Who has those numbers?

According to the Economist article, "the economic downturn has cut prices for recyclables by half or more since last summer." Where are these figures coming from and how can I get them?

Building decline here, loss of a livelihood there...

This commentary on the Economist article about recycling and cost state that when new construction declines the rag pickers in less developed countries (India) feel the pinch.

It also argues that the rag pickers are more effective at diverting waste from landfill and they do more complex sorting at a much lower cost. Of course, the environmental justice and human rights aspects of their livelihood are not internalized into the cost. Material recycling facilities (MRFs) are very costly, and it is challenging to recover the costs with resource recovery. Adding simple sorting facilities and ensuring basic rights (such as freedom from exploitation) for waste pickers could elevate their working/living conditions while retaining the simplicity and effectiveness of waste picking.

March 4, 2009

"The Magic Mountain: Trickle-down economics in a Philippine garbage dump"

The Magic Mountain is a poetic account of the Payatas Dumpsite after the 2000 collapse, chronicling the conditions of the mangangalahigs (waste pickers) and one of the development projects. Reiterates the global trend of unskilled laborers turning to waste picking as not only a means of survival but as a way to eke out a living slightly higher than the official minimum wage. These are often farmers who have migrated to the city searching for a life beyond a fragile subsistence.

Power, Matthew. "The Magic Mountain: Trickle-down economics in a Philippine garbage dump" Harper's Magazine, December 2006.

March 2, 2009

Things to do with waste: Newspaper Shop Bags

There are many things that can be made from waste. Reuse postpones dealing with the waste, though it doesn't take it out of the waste stream forever. In India they make shop bags out of used newspaper. They are great! Find out how to make your own.

Payatas Dumpsite Project

A successful solid waste management project in the Philippines after the Payatas dumpsite collapse of July 2000. Funded and developed by SIDA and CONEXOR. Great information on this site about the project, providing direction and insight into how the project was developed including a nearly step-by-step guide.

February 27, 2009

Furedy: Socio-Environmental Initiatives in Solid Waste Management in Southern Cities: Developing International Comparison

Furedy, Christine. "Socio-Environmental Initiatives in Solid Waste Management in Southern Cities: Developing International Comparisons." Journal of Public Health 27.2 (1997): 142-156.

Provides a structure and commentary for understanding the trend toward integrating social-environmental objectives within solid waste management schemes, including a discussion of the main assumptions behind this trend. Offers a litany of questions for evaluating MSWM strategies, programs and policies. Evaluates three different initiatives including the project "Diagnosis of Informal Solid Waste Management in Recife, Brazil," the "Garbage Recycling Project" in Metro Manila (referenced elsewhere in Furedy's work) and the "Scavengers in Indonesia-a Human Development Programme" under direction of GTZ.

In conclusion, Furedy states that it may be difficult to generalize about success as programs vary greatly in scope, implementation, and goals. However, she suggests that project leadership, organizational capacity, access to policy makers, a local and national context supportive of informal work, international funding and exposure to other international development programs and communities in MSWM and the particular socio-environmental approach are important factors to the long-term success of the program.

Realities of the particular socio-economic context need to be addressed. Specifically, the support of techno-managerial (conventional) approach by the aid agencies and how this thinking is entrenched within municipalities; the lack of resources and expertise to affect real change; the viability of organizations given economic [and capacity/leadership] constraints; and the lack of interest in MSWM by environmental advocacy groups, particularly in the South.

Method: discussion and case study


This article provides many ways to begin thinking about the political environment around waste management and how conducive it might be to an integrated approach. It argues for the ability of the project leaders to garner support for integrated solutions from the local municipal leadership as well as the international community.

This article suggests garnering a high level of support by NGOs and government for the continued success of any program, and distinguishing whether the project is social action or whether there is a valid (and attainable) research goal. The discussion here suggests that in my project design adding a component to train locals on research methodology would be of continued benefit [see Helzi's work with PRADAN and the work that the Goldin Institute did in Bangladesh].

This paper provides background of the project in Recife that might be a good model for my project (and which received funding in 1993 from MacArthur):

"Understanding how the solid waste systems operate in Recife is seen as the first step and one that will contribute to a co-operative relationship with the solid waste authorities (who have no systematic information on the aspects being studied).

The wider goals are to assist the social development of waste pickers (through organization) and to improve resource recovery/recycling in the city by gaining the co-operation of the municipality for recognition of pickers and the promotion of source separation. Improving the efficiency of resource recovery and the health and working conditions of both pickers and traders by reducing picking from mixed wastes are central to the philosophy of this project."

I'm not convinced that promotion of source separation is necessarily the most effective strategy, as it generally requires considerable amount of citizen education. It is not particularly effective even in Northern cities. Furedy states that a project might initially promote resource recovery through picking from mixed post-consumer sources and move toward source separation as both a waste-reduction and condition improvement strategy. Initially focusing on organized collection, service provision, sorting and processing facilities and economically viable waste-to-resource projects (fish/pig feed, compost) might be a better focus.

Furedy: Socio-political Aspects of the Recovery and Recycling of Urban Wastes in Asia

Furedy, Christine. "Socio-political Aspects of the Recovery and Recycling of Urban Wastes in Asia." Conservation & Recycling 7.2-4 (1984): 167-173.


"In the cities of developing countries, the factors that will most transform solid waste management in the near future will be social and political rather than technical."

Argues for a shift from a technical innovation focused approach to one that considers social and political aspects of solid waste management, particularly in relation to the informal sector waste scavengers, but also in consideration of the constraints to a technical approach in many rapidly developing countries and cities.

Collectors and scavengers aid in the collection of waste; this paper outlines some of the social and political issues to be considered in promoting the integration of informal sector with techno-managerial approaches.

The paper outlines research priorities to be addressed if socio-political factors are to be taken into account:

  1. What is the structure of the informal systems of recuperation (itinerant waste buyers), scavenging and recycling?
  2. What are the pathways of the recovered materials [could be thought of as a type of value chain analysis (recommended by WIEGO) or supply chain analysis]?
  3. What is the relationship between the formal and informal sectors?
  4. What are the public health aspects of waste recycling?
  5. What are the attitudes, perceptions and behaviors within and of the informal sector?
  6. What public interventions and educational efforts influence waste-related behavior?

The paper also discusses five main areas of tension (persistent dilemmas) inherent in the discussion of integrated solid waste management (formal and informal sector integration):

  • between common good and individual rights;
  • between health concerns and employment access;
  • between economic efficiency and humane policies;
  • between promotion of industry and preservation of environmental quality;
  • and, between municipal enterprise and private enterprise.

Method: primarily a discussion paper as follow-up to a workshop on waste recycling held in Calcutta, May 1983

These five areas of tension raise many questions about how to best promote development and economic opportunity within the informal waste sector. Is it appropriate to promote an economic activity that has significant health impacts? Are there ways to decrease the exposure to risk while allowing for resource recovery (even Northern recycling facilities are highly hazardous work environments)? What commitment does a municipality have to provide economic opportunity and how can this also benefit the commitment to public health and municipal order (as well as environmental goals)? Where in the cycle does it benefit the most people, or have the greatest positive impact, to promote informal sector or small- business opportunities? How can a municipality benefit from resource recovery while also promoting economic opportunity for the people (conflict of the municipality with the people it serves)?

This paper reinforces the need for an overarching vision and plan for solid waste management at the municipal level that addresses not just techno-managerial concerns such as facility upgrading and fleet maintenance, but also socio-political-economic and environmental protection goals.