March 20, 2009

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."

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.

February 26, 2009

Furedy: Working with the Waste Pickers: Asian Approaches to Urban Solid Waste Management

Furedy, Christine. "Working with the Waste Pickers: Asian Approaches to Urban Solid Waste Management." Alternatives 19.2 (1993): 18-23.

Presents five brief case studies of community based projects in Asia that have social and ecological goals and move beyond the "collection-transport-disposal" mentality.

Key statement: "The factors promoting resource recovery from municipal solid waste in Asian cities differ from those in [the North (Canada)]. In resource-scarce developing cities, much consumption is frugal and wastes of all kinds are exploited by the poor people and small and large industry" (p 18)

In wealthier countries the concern is effective management for ecological/environmental reasons. In poorer countries waste management is heavily tied to engineering and the strategies are privatization and technology upgrades for cost effectiveness.

In conclusion Furedy charges international aid and development agencies to consider changing priorities in solid waste management from techno-managerial approach modeled off of Northern cities to recognizing the value of community based solutions (and funding these initiatives) involving the informal sector to achieve both social and environmental goals.


The last point raised in the article is the key. Solutions for developing cities must differ from those for the developed world. Techno-managerial approaches are not necessarily the most resource effective or productive, and focusing entirely on formal sector technological approaches can be a detriment to other social-economic goals where waste picking is a viable option for unskilled workers. Development and aid agencies need to recognize this and start funding community based solutions over capital projects in solid waste management.

February 25, 2009

Kaseva & Gupta: Recycling – an Environmentally Friendly and Income Generating Activity Towards Sustainable Sold Waste Management. Case Study – Dar Es Salaam City, Tanzania

Kaseva, M. E., and S. K. Gupta. "Recycling – an Environmentally Friendly and Income Generating Activity Towards Sustainable Sold Waste Management. Case Study – Dar Es Salaam City, Tanzania." Resources, Conservation and Recycling 17 (1996): 299-309.

Reports on a study conducted in Dar es Salaam in the years 1993-1995. Found scavengers in Dar es Salaam earn more than the official minimum wage and resort to scavenging due to lack of employment options. That waste activities can generate a higher than minimum wage income means encouraging the integration of informal sector recycling activities into an integrated waste management scenario is a good option to meet environmental and employment goals.

Includes discussions and statistics on rates of garbage generation, and recycling/resource recovery (very low, recycling is less than 0.1% of waste in the study) in Dar es Salaam. Also includes a discussion of waste composition (dense, wet, 60% organic). Study was conducted via survey at the Vingunguti dump site (and other sites across the city) and generated an estimate of 600 waste workers in Dar es Salaam [this seems low in comparison to other cities].

Method: case study, survey


Recovery of materials has economic, environmental and social advantages.

There is some division of activity between the genders was observed (what they specialized in). This is important to look at from a cost/revenue basis (not discussed in detail here). Are the women forced to scavenge for the less valuable materials (in this case wood, coconut husk and food) while the men pick out more valuable items (in this case metal, leather, bottles, packaging materials)? Is this always the case? In San Pedro Sula both men and women pick waste at the dump, are they picking for the same items or are the men able to scavenge the more lucrative items while women are forced to pick through their scraps? Is there an order to the scavenging? Do men have first access and then women?

In this study the scavengers had multiple buyers, including small vendors, small-scale manufacturers and even big industry through middle men. So this is not a monopsonistic market. According to others, if the market were monopsonistic, it is unlikely they would be able to make as much money from the recycling activity.

The study found that waste materials are not fully recovered, so there is opportunity for expanding activities, making them more productive and effective. At the same time, better processing facilities will reduce hazards to workers.

Exploitation by middle men is a problem. This report doesn't talk about worker cooperatives, but does recommend internalizing the scavengers into a planned resource recovery process.

Gonzenbach & Coad: Solid waste management and the Millennium Development Goals: Links that inspire action

Gonzenbach, Barbara & Coad, Adrian. Solid waste management and the Millennium Development Goals: Links that inspire action. CWG Publication Series No 3 (2007).

Summary paper from the CWG-WASH workshop on Solid Waste, Health and the MDGs in Kokata, India in 2006.


Waste upgrading schemes that have relied on technology (capital investments) have not had the desired results. Alternative service providers (private sector, community groups, informal sector) are being considered more often, along with community participation, to achieve sustainability goals.

Provides a goal by goal analysis of solid waste management to meet the MDGs. Includes examples and recommendations for implementation of solid waste management policies and programs that support the MDGs.


This report makes a lot of the same points as others connecting meeting MDGs with integration of the informal sector into solid waste management; this creates a win-win by increasing jobs and elevating the position of waste workers while also meeting public health and environmental goals in municipalities that are already overburdened by the expense of solid waste management.

MDG Goal 1 (reducing poverty and hunger) - Solid waste management provides good economic opportunities for unskilled laborers. Large portions of the population are involved in collecting, sorting, pre-processing and processing waste materials either in the recycling chain or composting. The informal sector may be more efficient, responsive and sustainable than formal solid waste management [which is often overburdened, under budgeted and includes a lot of dead weight in under-performing municipal employees - see Cointreau]. Also argues for improving the status waste workers -- for example through public-NGO collaborations -- who are often exploited and harassed. In order to meet the MDGs through solid waste management development programs must see the waste workers as "economic actors" instead of as a problem that must be eliminated. Approaches that improve conditions (reduce hazards) and improve productivity can increase the economic opportunity for these workers [and also better meet environmental protection goals].

MDG Goal 2 (assuring all children receive basic education)- Argues that the reason why many of the children of waste pickers don't attend school is because they contribute financially to the income of the family, or provide household labor so the parents can work, and the family cannot afford to let them go to school. This is in part because the parents were not educated and so do not value education as a means to a better life. Also, schools are not located near the dump sites or are overly expensive. [The Micah Project in Tegucigalpa has solved this issue by teaching lessons at the clinic that is on the landfill].

MDG Goal 3 (Gender Equity) - Roles within the informal and formal waste sectors are often gender divided, with the men taking on supervisory roles, the role of the middleman and taking the least offensive jobs. Women often do the most hazardous and dirty jobs, working in unhealthy conditions (and exposing their unborn and newborn children to toxic materials and hazardous conditions). Proposes that the role of women to their community may give them an advantage in taking on the role of community collection and cleaning services. Women owned businesses should be contracted for these services.

MDG Goal 4 & 5 (reducing child mortality, improve maternal health) - Children and women are exposed to many diseases on the landfill, unsafe conditions, toxic and industrial wastes and accidents involving vehicles (Medina) and old appliances (this article). Improving the collection process and waste processing would reduce exposure of women and children. See list of effects of chemical pollution on women, and description of common diseases and accidents.

MDG Goal 6 (combat HIV/AIDS, malaria and other diseases) - Mostly this involves handling water runoff and reducing opportunities for standing water. The risk of HIV/AIDS infection is relatively low because the virus has a short life span when exposed to oxygen. Better processes and policies with needles/sharps would eliminate much of the risk to workers and children processing waste. Similarly with hepatitis though it has a longer life span and could be on any sharp object. Incineration of sharps and medical waste is often thought to be a solution (though it does cause dioxin pollution), but in developing countries the wastes are sold to recyclers (and often are reused). Therefore, policies to destroy the needles at the point of use are most effective. Malaria, dengue filariasis, and yellow fever are more common and as mosquito borne illnesses, need to be controlled by eliminating opportunities for standing water.

MDG Goal 7 (ensure environmental sustainability) - recycling achieves many of the environmental targets including conservation of forests, energy efficiency and reduction of CO2 emissions. Proper solid waste management can also help in maintaining access to clean drinking water as poor landfill construction and illegal dumping can lead to pollution of the water supply. Leachate and water run-off from landfills need to be properly managed to minimize pollution. Proper solid waste management can also improve the living conditions in slums and provide improved sanitation (there is a lengthy discussion about drains in slums and piles of waste encouraging open defecation).

MDG Goal 8 (develop global partnership for development) - Integrated solid waste management strategies, when they involve partnerships between municipalities, private sector and informal sector workers and cooperatives, can reduce corruption, exploitation and increase transparency, participation and effectiveness of the solution.

February 24, 2009

Gerlagh et al.: Integrated Modelling of Solid Waste in India

Gerlagh, Reyer et al. "Integrated Modelling of Solid Waste in India." IIED Working Paper No. 26 (1999).


Proposes a new way to use the technical model to deal with socio-economic and environmental concerns. Provides a background on various models for evaluating solid waste systems and a brief analysis of each one with respect to developing country conditions.

In India SWM improvement focuses on cost-minimizing techno-managerial top-down strategies such as improving management, cost recovery, improving technology and privatization of collection and transportation. The extensive informal sector, and the connected activities, actors and commodities are largely ignored. Social and environmental goals, such as waste minimization, recycling, employment, public health/litter reduction, are overlooked, despite their potential contribution to overall economic and environmental goals.

The authors argue for internalizing the economic, social and environmental externalities and inventing a new paradigm of waste management that is socially and environmentally sound.

Waste generation, collection and processing are very different in the South than in the North. In the South safe and effective collection and disposal of waste are the priority whereas priorities in the North are meeting environmental goals, for example through effective recycling and incineration. Therefore a different model is needed for developing countries.

Includes statistics on municipal waste management rates in India; as much as 30 percent of waste goes uncollected.


The model raises several points, that waste processing itself requires environmental resources (considering emissions consumes air, leachate and runoff consume clean water, landfilling consumes land); some "waste goods" compete against primary materials (e.g., plastics) and others are only considered a good when the cost of production is less than that recovered and/or when there are no constraints to production (e.g., compost which may not have a value depending on the market, and which may cost more to produce than it can be sold for, or which may require larger facilities than are available); some of the actors within the cycle are both producers and consumers of the waste;

The results of one scenario using the model on Madras showed that recycling and composting are correlated. That is, an increase in composting results in an increase in recycling rates. This makes sense where there are facilities for composting (or a market for the organic waste).

The model is quite complex and would require significantly more understanding of economics than I currently possess. The background information and discussion of each component in the model are useful.

February 21, 2009

Sudhir, et al.: Integrated Solid Waste Management in Urban India: A Critical Operational Research Framework

Sudhir, V., V. R. Muraleedharan, and G. Srinivasan. "Integrated Solid Waste Management in Urban India: A Critical Operational Research Framework." Socio-Economic Planning Science 30.3 (1996): 163-181.

Argument: Current quantitative models for evaluating solid waste management systems tend to support top-down techno-managerial approaches and do not account for the social, ecological and economic aspects of solid waste management, particularly informal waste picking activities. In designing a soft system (integrating the goals of sustainability) power structure inherent in the system must be understood.

This article proposes a Critical Operational Research (COR) framework to help planners design SWM systems. Discusses the nature of NIMBY in solid waste management planning suggests that a model to facilitate planning needs to understand the relationships among all actors and should take a bottom-up approach. A top-down approach tends to support techno-managerial solutions which are inefficient in rapidly urbanizing developing country contexts.

A review of existing tools (models) for evaluating waste management systems raises a number of questions:

  • Whose interest is served by the model?
  • What elements are incorporated (formal, informal, collection, disposal, recycling, reuse)?
  • What are the structural components of the system (facilities, transportation, source separation, composition of waste)?
  • And, is the tool appropriate to the natures of planning in that particular context and issues around reasonable implementation.

The proposed model incorporates six primary goals:

  1. minimizing uncollected waste in the street (minimizing public health issues);
  2. maximizing resource recovery/minimizing the amount of waste that goes directly from collection to disposal (reducing the environmental impact);
  3. minimizing cost to the municipality;
  4. maximizing use of existing vehicles (reducing emissions, minimizing costs);
  5. minimizing unemployment in the informal sector (minimizing overall costs to the municipality for socio-economic program);
  6. and, maximize recovery of waste material and minimize cost of processing plants (only two options are considered, composting and RDF since the composition of waste is not conducive to incineration).

Method: Review of existing models, application of proposed model to Madras


It is critical to consider socio-economic impacts of solid waste management decisions, particularly in areas with high informal sector participation. The result of the analysis in Madras shows that it may not be of the greatest benefit to "formalize" the informal sector (through internalizing the waste pickers by accommodating them at transfer stations). The study found that it is five times less expensive to keep the waste pickers external to the system, and that the potential for resource recovery is higher (only a small percentage of waste pickers can be accommodated at the transfer stations - limiting participation).

While source-separation does reduce waste, and make cost-recovery available for municipalities, it has a negative effect on the informal sector (reduces the availability of the resource at the landfill). The role of the informal sector must be carefully considered in long-term source separation and waste reduction goals.

The model seems overly complicated.

February 19, 2009

Medina: Scavenger cooperatives in Asia and Latin America

Medina, Martin. " Scavenger cooperatives in Asia and Latin America." Resources, Conservation and Recycling 31 (2000): 51–69.

Argument: Scavenger activities are an important and integral strategy for survival among poor and disadvantaged populations and should be supported through public policies for solid waste management as a way to alleviate poverty, increase grassroots development, and protect the environment.

Overview: Introduces a typology of public policies toward scavenging (repression, neglect, collusion, stimulation) and describes eleven different scavenging patterns:

  1. source separation at the household or place generating waste materials
  2. collection crews sort recycleables while on their collection routes
  3. informal collectors retrieve recyclables prior to the disposal of the refuse they pick up
  4. itinerant buyers purchase source-separated recyclables from residents
  5. scavengers retriece materials at the communal storage sites, as well as from commercial and residential containers placed curbside
  6. on the streets or public spaces, picking up litter
  7. in vacant lots, where garbage is dumped, as well as in illegal dumps
  8. in canals and rivers that cross urban areas carrying materials dumped upstream
  9. at composting plants
  10. at municipal open dumps
  11. at landfills

Examines the formation of grassroots scavenger cooperatives across multiple cities in Latin America and Asia. Successful cooperatives in Colombia (organized into a super collective, the National Recycling Program), Brazil, Mexico (Sociedad de Seleccionadores de Materiales (SOCOSEMA)), Phillippines (organized by Women’s Balikatan Movement), India (EXNORA in Madras), Indonesia (national legislation to support scavengers).

Method: literature review, case studies.


Medina differs from Wilson in analyzing the feasibility of collection as an option. Wilson argues that the closer the informal activity is to the source, the greater value can be added, but does not account for factors that Medina takes into account here, such as cost of transfer (whether a vehicle is required), and other advantages of living and working in open dumps (availability of materials to build shelter lowering housing costs).

There is a great need for policies that support scavenging. Informal sector waste management can be highly beneficial, for both the municipality and the scavengers. Supportive strategies can lead to higher incomes for scavengers than they can earn as unskilled workers in the formal sector (see reference on p 58). Further, policies to reduce or eliminate scavenging often lead to higher debt for scavengers, no opportunity to make a good living, resorting to street scavenging, which is much less productive than at the landfill. Scavengers are prey to police brutality and assault by street gangs. Strategies that support scavengers to organize, improve efficiency and effectiveness, and upgrade working and living conditions can be beneficial for a municipalities bottom line and support environmental protection priorities.

The formation of cooperatives allows for massing of volume, which increases value (see Wilson), and control quality, which leads to greater bargaining power, and could avoid using a monopsonistic middle man who often underpays scavengers, making profits of at least 300% (see reference p 59). Instead cooperatives can sell directly to industry, maximizing the income for the scavengers. In this way scavengers can make more than if they were to work as unskilled laborers in the formal sector.

As with Cointreau, Medina argues that waste management technology designed for high-income countries has limited application in low-income countries, primarily because the nature of waste is quite different, with a higher degree of wet, dense, organic solids that can't easily be combusted. Large scale, high technology solutions are not typically appropriate but the feasibility of using newer small-scale anaerobic digesters is not discussed here and could be studied. Medina suggests that windrow composting is an effective and appropriately low-technology option for dealing with organic wastes, particularly used to create beneficial daily cover for sanitary landfills (due to questions about the quality of the compost it may not be appropriate for agricultural application).

In conclusion Medina states that, "scavengers respond to market demand and not to environmental considerations." (p 67) While it is generally true that the poor respond most to fulfilling their primary needs and the environment is an abstract, long-term idea that is not relevant to their daily living, some literature from community based conservation projects suggest that the poor are concerned for their well being, and can be good stewards of the environment when there is an economic incentive to do so (find citations for this).

Medina: Serving the Unserved: Informal Refuse Collection in Mexico

Medina, Martin. "Serving the Unserved: Informal Refuse Collection in Mexico." Waste Management & Research 23 (2005): 390-397.

Argument: Informal collection can help cities in developing countries to clean up the urban environment and provide a livelihood for the urban poor.

Urbanization and population explosion is putting a strain on an already underperforming management of solid waste in developing countries.

Cities respond to this challenge by upgrading services and through privatization. Low-income areas are underserved by municipal and private collectors, so informal collectors work on a fee basis in these areas. Government is not always supportive of informal sector activities, and may be adversarial. The informal sector is not effectively integrated into the total waste management system but could fill in the gaps where it is not feasible for municipality to provide services.

This paper is primarily about the informal collection of recycling. Medina gives examples of informal collection in five Mexican cities.

Method: literature review, case studies.

Opportunity for further research: "study IRC in other cities and countries to examine its social, economic, and environmental impact, in order to design integrated MSWM policies that recognize the existence and possible contributions of informal refuse collectors."


Municipal waste collection is ineffective, often lower levels of service than other utilities. Unlike low service rates in electric, low levels of service in waste management lead to environmental and health problems (same is true to some extent for water treatment and sanitation). [see article "Infrastructure Coverage and the Poor: A Global Perspective"] Low income areas suffer a disproportionate burden from lack of solid waste management, leading to high rates of disease including a high correlation with mortality in children under 5 (from Yepes and Campbell, referenced on p 391)

Many factors lead to the establishment of informal refuse collection (IRC). These include lack of jobs in the formal sector and/or lack of viable economic activity in the informal sector (options that are socially preferable and pay more), low level of solid waste service provision, lack of political will to demand service provision in poor areas. Wilson makes a similar point that informal recycling (waste picking) would not exist to as great an extent if there were other economic opportunities. Here Medina extends that and shows that in the case of low service provision, the informal sector can provide a service and at the same time make more than minimum wage (sometimes 3-5 times as much). So informal collection can be a good livelihood.

Transfer stations make it easier for informal collectors because they decrease the distance required to travel from collection point to disposal. These facilities are often publicly or privately owned and operated. Though there is an opportunity for grassroots or cooperative ownership of these facilities, it is very rare.

How the waste is handled after collection makes a difference. Some cities have transfer stations, in other places the waste is brought back to the home to be sorted, and the fines and unusable materials are burned (causing a health hazard). This is similar to the Zabbaleen system, though they are working to decrease the burning.

Both Medina and Cointreau argue that collection routes under open competition (like the City of Saint Paul) are highly inefficient as many different carriers go through the same neighborhood. Fixed collection routes on a contractual or franchise basis are a better system.

Many public policies toward informal collection not only do not support informal sector, but are adversarial. Medina identifies three categories of negative policy: repression, neglect and collusion (exploitation through private contracts). Only in the lack of ability to meet demand have governments turned toward stimulation of the informal sector as a part of the management solution.

Like Wilson, Medina also argues that support of IRC supports MDGs such as reducing extreme poverty and decreasing preventable health issues (e.g., chronic diarrhea) by providing economic opportunities, environmental and public health benefits. Additionally, support of the informal sector may have political appeal in countries where public-private (multinational) partnerships have a bad reputation.

Cointreau: Private Sector Participation in Municipal Solid Waste Services in Developing Countries

Cointreau, S. (1994) Private Sector Participation in Municipal Solid Waste Services in Developing Countries, Urban Management Programme Discussion Paper, No. 13. The World Bank, Washington, DC.

Method: literature review with case studies and examples from many municipalities.

This report is an analysis of the various benefits, costs and considerations for privatizing solid waste management in developing countries. Includes minimal information on informal sector waste management strategies; a second volume on the informal sector was planned, but may not have been published.

Includes calculations of the various costs of MSWM across low, middle and high-income countries. Includes figures on economies of scale in collection and disposal, including number of people serviced under different scenarios. Discusses ways the system is abused (both by public and private entities) through corruption and collusion.

Argument: solid waste management is an essential public good, and as such, it is the responsibility of municipalities to ensure collection and disposal services are available across all communities, not just the wealthy. Partial privatization is one option for reducing the burden of MSWM on cities, and can encourage efficiency and cost savings in city-operated programs.


While this piece is primarily a discussion of the issues faced by municipalities intending to move to a formal, privatized system, it does include both some examples of informal and integrated systems. It distinguishes between four methods of private sector participation in waste management (contracting, franchise, concession, open competition) and discusses the benefits, costs and considerations for each method.

While in theory this is a good argument, in practice, it is not profitable to collect waste in many poor areas. Poor areas tend to have narrow, winding, unpaved streets that are difficult to navigate with a large collector/compactor truck. For cities with informal sector collectors such as Cairo's zabballeen, the waste from poor people is not very valuable, has very few recyclables and no usable organic waste. In this situation the collector must charge a fee for service in poor areas where in wealthy areas he may collect for free to have access to highly valuable waste. This is a fundamental inequality in value recovery from waste management

Cointreau argues that municipal cleanliness and the disposal of waste in a safe and effective manner are critical to maintaining public health and environmental protection. As such, excluding some populations from service (the very poor) is a detriment to the municipality, so solid waste management is a public good within the public domain, and responsibility for collection and disposal across all populations is that of the municipality. A large portion of a city's budget is spent on SWM (between 20 and 50 percent of the municipal budget in developing countries) but the level of service in developing countries is very low (only between 50 and 70 percent of solid waste is collected) (see page 7). When done well, integrating private, formal and informal systems can dramatically increase efficiency and effectiveness and save municipalities money. The paper presents a number of different options for effectively combining privately and publicly managed services.

Reuse and recycling are key to cost recovery in solid waste management in developing countries. In the waste hierarchy, reduce, reuse, recycle, recycling is the last resort for a reason. Using recycled materials saves industry money in terms of material and energy costs, but recycling is rarely an economically efficient market (p 6). It often requires considerable subsidy to make it viable and is considered a "merit good" (p 6). While Cointreau begins to get at the effective use of informal recycling sector as a way to capture this resource, it is not fully explored here (a second paper on the informal sector was planned but never written).

Cointreau makes one point about collection that sheds some light on the difference between Wilson and Medina's point of view on how far up the food chain informal sector activities are feasible: "As urban areas become densely populated and travel time to disposal sites increases, local governments tend to change from labor-intensive refuse collection systems, which use pushcarts and open trucks, to capital-intensive systems, which use compaction trucks." Few informal sector workers can afford vehicles to do collection, this was an issue in Cairo, for example when the city forced collectors to get rid of their donkey carts and buy vehicles, which means that in cities with large dump sites on the periphery and no transfer stations, there is a) a tendency toward illegal dumping within the city limits and b) fewer opportunities for poor people to capture the full economic advantages available when collecting the waste, resorting to landfill scavenging as the primary activity.

February 15, 2009

Chant: Contributions of a Gender Perspective to the Analysis of Poverty

Chant, Sylvia. "Contributions of a Gender Perspective to the Analysis of Poverty." Women and Gender Equity in Development Theory and Practice. Eds. Jane S. Jaquette and Gale Summerfield. Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2006. 87-106.

This chapter provides a summary of the implications of gender on poverty analysis. Includes an overview of four major bodies of research related to women (women in development, gender and structural adjustment, female-headed households and the feminization of poverty, women's empowerment). Includes discussions on the definitions of poverty and how to measure it, the gender differences in poverty, and the economic "empowerment" of women.

Argument: household level data does not accurately reflect the gender dimensions of poverty and may obscure the true nature of poverty, particularly for women.


This body of research opens up my thoughts about how to understand the dynamics of waste picking in this Honduran community. There is likely a gender dimension to poverty, domestic violence, female-headed households are quite common and it appears the majority of pickers are women and children, though there are men up on the landfill it is unclear whether they are recicladores, collectors or middle men.

Early research on women in development showed that the burdens of poverty are greater for women than for men. Development projects directed at men did not necessarily benefit women and children. Furthermore, no aspect of women's lives is readily seen through household level data. Women's contribution to the household went unacknowledged in their households and in society. Women in male-headed households may suffer poverty even if household doesn't (as measured by total income). This may be the case when men control all of the household income, and particularly when they spend it on frivolous wants instead of meeting basic needs.

Women not only have to scavenge but also have to care for children and the survival of the household. In male-headed households the question is how much of their income and/or input is available to them. In this literature empowerment is defined as the ability of a woman to make choices. Who controls decisions and allocates resources is as important (perhaps more so) than income. For this reason many women "choose" to live without the extra income of an adult male (husband, brother, father). This is defined as "secondary poverty" and is greatly influenced by available good jobs - where jobs are not available and livelihoods are tenuous at best, the effects of secondary poverty are very serious.

Outside of the household, women may have different access to resources than men. This could include access to the landfill, access to transportation to/from the landfill and access to the middle man or market for recyclable materials.

Poverty itself may not be a major problem if basic needs are met and there is access to medical care, services and education. This also depends on the asset base - including economic and physical assets, but also human and social capital. Understanding the true dimensions of poverty means measuring not just the income and expenses but also issues relating to access and assets.

Measuring poverty is particularly difficult for women as they are more likely to be involved in hard-to-calculate informal activities. Qualitative and action research may lead to better data, but may also be a burden on women. The researcher has to balance the need for data with the burden of time for poor women.

Cites numerous resources for possible poverty indicators and definitions.

February 14, 2009

Wilson: Role of Informal Sector Recycling in Waste Management in Developing Countries

Wilson, David C., Costas Velis, and Chris Cheeseman. "Role of Informal Sector Recycling in Waste Management in Developing Countries." Habitat International 30 (2006): 797-808.

Argument: integrating informal waste management with formal sector SWM instead of moving to a purely formal system for recycling achieves both Millenium Development Goals and waste management goals.

Overview of information sector waste management activities across multiple countries. Highlights many of the benefits and drawbacks to informal waste management. Includes some statistics on collection in developing countries. Contains a number of useful frameworks:

  1. categories of informal recycling (itinerant waste buyers, street waste picking. municipal waste collection crew, waste picking from dumps).
  2. flow chart of an informal recycling system (reproduced from Wilson, et al., 2001)
  3. chart of hierarchy within the informal recycling sector, ways that value is added to recyclables (collection, sorting, accumulation of volume, pre-processing, small manufacturing craftsmanship, market intelligence, trading) (adapted from Schneiberg 2001).
  4. risk factors related to solid waste (from Couintreau)
  5. health effects reported (from Eerd 1996)

Method: Review of literature, consultation with other experts


Wilson, Velis and Cheeseman argue that one of the best ways to reduce both poverty (MDG) and waste is to work with the informal waste sector to improve efficiency, livelihoods and working conditions. This can be achieved a number of ways, with the most beneficial way to allow for informal sector sorting, and encouraging collective bargaining and organization. They further state that once the informal waste sector is dissolved or is no longer functional, it is very expensive to build a formal sector recycling system. I am reminded of Susan Strasser's descriptions of turn of the century American cities and how efficient and effective the informal recycling/reuse sector was that there was no notion of a wastebasket in homes (waste and want).

While there are numerous health hazards to dealing with waste, particularly at such an intimate level, there are also benefits to informal sector recycling. In areas where there are no formal sector jobs available (or informal jobs that have a higher pay), recycling activity can be a viable livelihood and play a role in development. For many people worldwide (according to Medina, as reported here, 2% of the population in Asian and Latin American cities is involved in informal sector recycling activities) informal recycling is the only way to generate income.

Integrated recycling can be of benefit both to the recyclers and to the city, which then pays low (or no) cost to reduce waste which ultimately reduces the need for landfills.

Two key points in this article are that organization leads to greater value through collective bargaining, which may be one of the easiest opportunities for development in communities where there is no waste picker group (collective, cooperative, advocacy organization). The other way to maximize production is by adding value to waste material by working further up the food chain (collecting fees for gathering the waste at the source), use as a resource (e.g., pig feed), adaptive reuse/manufacturing, but also simply through stockpiling and cleaning or pre-processing the materials. The authors give examples of communities where each of these is the primary mode.

This article raised many potential survey questions:

  1. Are there any groups or organizations of waste pickers in this area?
  2. Who does the recycling (men, women, children)?
  3. Beyond collecting the materials, do you do anything else to them to add value?
  4. Do you have to pay anyone for access to the landfill?
  5. Have you been unfairly treated because you are a woman (want to ask if there is a sexual harassment component)?
  6. Have you had any respiratory illness in the last year? (same for children) Skin problems such as rashes, hives or sores that won't heal? Chronic diarrhea?

February 12, 2009

Assad & Garas: Experiments in Community Development in a Zabbaleen Settlement

Assaad, Marie, and Nadra Garas. "Experiments in Community Development in a Zabbaleen Settlement." Cairo Papers in Social Science Volume 16 Monograph 4 (1993/1994).

Background on the settlement and discussion of the various upgrading programs.

Method: Interviews with key people inside and outside the settlement, review of literature pertaining to the programs (mostly reports from Environmental Quality International (EQI)).


Development is intertwined with the garbage collecting and sorting activities of the Zabaleen. The Zabaleen system is different than that in Honduras. The Zabaleen are collectors, which gives them access to the waste, particularly organic waste, when it is most usable and easier to sort. They sort out all components of waste, not just the easy recyclables like the recicladores in Latin America. Using the organic waste for pig feed gives them one more layer of use and another source of income. Their income comes from fees for collecting, sale of recyclables to middlemen (or in the case of communities with upgraded facilities, directly on the international market), and sale of the pigs fed on the organic scrap they collect.

There are many opportunities to think about for Honduras scavengers. First, is it possible to move the informal activity further up the stream so that people are involved in the collection at the source instead of sorting off the landfill where the organic matter is less useful? Second, could an agriculture project such as tilapia ponds, pig farming or pelletization of organic wastes for sale as fish food provide another level of income for these communities?

The Zabaleen are highly organized. Together with the Wahiya and a powerful community leader they formed El Gami'yea (the Garbage Collectors' Association). Many other organizations operate within the Zabaleen settlement and have been more involved in development programs than directly with the activities related to garbage. Eventually EQI became the primary organizer of development activities in partnership with El Gami'yea but there was not enough focus on capacity development and transfer of knowledge to the staff and members of El Gami'yea so the organization suffered once EQI's involvement came to an end.

There are recicladores organizations in Latin America, including Recicladores sin Fronteras (recycling without borders), and very strong organizations in Bogotá and a national organization in Colombia, and organizations in India such as Kagad Kach Patra Kashtakari Panchayat (information from the 1st World Congress on Waste Pickers - 2008). At present it seems that informal sector waste activities in Honduras have little or no organization. This affects how the informal activity is integrated with the formal and leaves individual pickers powerless to policy and market changes. Additionally, these organizations also seem to be involved in development activities within these communities, something that would have to be studied further to confirm.

As with many upgrading programs the issues are complex and many development projects were undertaken to deal with particular aspects. Some of these programs related directly to the waste activities, such as establishing a veterinary clinic for the pigs and other livestock, and others were activities that would apply to any informal settlement upgrading scheme, such as infrastructure development for water and sanitation.

There are many dangers to waste picking. Exposure to hazardous materials such as cadmium and lead, harmful chemical exposure and risk of injury from sharp objects are just some of the concerns. Sorting at the source (in the households) is a better solution than sorting during collection or on the landfill (the most dangerous option). However, source separation requires significant behavior modification on the part of the masses and this in turn requires considerable effort in education and training, which not even our most advanced and well-funded efforts in developed countries have achieved. What motivation would a city such as San Pedro Sula have to undertake a source separation program, particularly if the city itself was not capturing the income from recycling?