Social impact of waste collection

22 June 2023

Who collects the waste after it leaves your home, and where does it go?  The answer might be easy to trace in a country like the UK, where I live – public services are strong, and I see the waste truck pass on a regular basis. Large trucks collecting recycling belay the reality in many other countries, however.

Its reported that waste pickers collect approximately 60% of all the plastic that is recycled around the world.

Waste pickers are workers generally outside of the formal economy and are paid by weight of the carton, bottles, or glass, they remove from piles of unseparated rubbish. Unlike refuse workers in the UK, informal workers experience limited access to social protection (i.e. Statutory Sick Pay, paid parental leave, pension, etc), all without workplace safety measures like eye goggles, gloves, or uniforms.

WRAP staff with Marcela, stood in front of bales of recycling at Recitoc

On a recent visit to Colombia with WRAP, I learned there are 60,000 informally employed waste pickers in the country. One young entrepreneur working to improve the conditions of waste pickers in Colombia is Marcela, pictured with the WRAP team.

Marcela runs the recycling facility, Recitoc, through a holistic approach, centring the facility on her employees’ needs because – as a former waste picker herself - she understands her workers’ toils and wants them to experience dignity and safety.

She knows what it’s like to stick your hand into a pile of rubbish and risk encountering broken glass or a torn nappy to extract plastic worth a few pence.

She supports her workers by taking up collections when their family members fall ill, giving them uniforms to ensure safety on the job and recognition in the community, and hiring vulnerable people who might otherwise struggle to find employment (i.e., those who are older or disabled).

Marcela recognises that a resident who knows their local waste picker is more likely to appropriately separate the rubbish from recyclable material. It is why she trains her staff to connect with neighbours by building rapport. Maybe these residents don’t know they are part of a circular economy where recyclable items can take on a new life, but they do know it makes life easier for Jose or Ana.

Wherever you live, whether you have formal collections or informal waste pickers, separating and cleaning your plastics for recycling makes a huge difference to ensure the maximum amount of materials can be recycled in your community. 

Properly sorting materials at home makes their job that much easier. 83% of UK citizens put into the recycling bin items that are not accepted in their local area, making it harder for recycling facilities to do their jobs. By knowing what is recyclable in your area, you can help your local waste workers to better sort and serve the community.

Recycle Now’s tools and campaigns exist to tackle this knowledge gap, and supports UK households to properly recycle, improving recyclability and the experience for people working in local recycling facilities. Learn more about the Recycling Locator on the Recycle Now website