Deia de Brito Successful change of the dynamics affecting waste pickers’ opportunities and livelihoods typically involves a combination of grassroots organizing; top-level changes in the policy, legal and judicial frameworks; and, often, facilitating agencies.

Brazil’s way forward

Waste pickers in Brazil have been organizing since the 1980s, when they began forming cooperatives and associations, with the help of progressive Catholic charities. Today, Brazil has the world’s largest national waste picker organization, MNCR (Movimento Nacional dos Catadores de Materiais Recicláveis), with about 500 cooperatives and 800,000 members. Supportive policies by some municipalities helped waste picker cooperatives gain results.

However, even with partial payment of expenses from the municipalities, earnings from selling recyclables to municipalities are not necessarily sufficient to provide a reliable source of income. To improve their situation, 36 waste picker networks across Brazil have formed to eliminate the middleperson, and some have opened their own factories. Brazil’s national policy environment became increasingly favorable, and former President Lula da Silva helped prioritize their social and economic inclusion. In 2002, the government’s registry of workers recognized waste picking as an occupation.

A 2007 federal law exempted waste picker cooperatives from competitive bidding, and some municipal and state governments have passed measures that prioritize them in recycling programs. Municipal contracting of waste picker cooperatives in Brazil provides an important model and a step toward the long-term goal of being treated like other city employees and receiving benefits for the public service they provide. Since 2013, the city of Itaúna (about 90,000 population) has saved some USD 65,000 (approximately 3.77 million rupees) a month by contracting a cooperative to collect recyclables door-to-door, as well as sort and sell them.

The cooperative’s contract to collect mandates them to conduct awareness and education campaigns, which has tripled the amount of materials separated at source. As a result, recycling rates have risen dramatically.

Colombia’s story

Waste pickers began organizing in Bogotá in the late 1980s, forming the Asociación de Recicladores de Bogotá (ARB) in 1987, which unites about 3,000 waste pickers (a third of the total). In 1990 organized waste pickers around Colombia formed the national Asociación Nacional de Recicladores (ANR). From the beginning, ARB fought for its rights via the judicial system. A 1994 law had restricted community organizations to waste services in municipalities with fewer than 8,000 inhabitants, and a 2003 call for public bids excluded waste picker organizations.

Pro bono lawyers, working with ARB and its partners, drew on human rights law to successfully argue for their inclusion. The Constitutional Court of Columbia ruled against excluding cooperatives from bidding and required future affirmative action for waste pickers. It also overturned the national decree that made waste the private property of contractors. Another judicial case overturned a 2008 law that criminalized waste pickers in public spaces and their “inappropriate” vehicles. These decisions have helped shift the balance of power between government and waste pickers.

Nevertheless, in 2011 the city of Bogotá announced a USD 1.7 billion bidding process that would hand recycling services over to private companies. ARB was able to rally other recycling stakeholders and mount a legal challenge. The Constitutional Court struck down the bidding process and drafted Order 275 requiring Bogotá to develop a proposal for integrated waste management that would remunerate waste pickers. The ruling resulted in Bogotá paying organized waste pickers USD 40 per ton of recyclables they sell to registered scrap dealers.

By the end of 2014, the scheme had doubled the earnings of 8,200 registered waste pickers who were paid individually into bank accounts set up for that purpose. Since 2012, the number of registered waste pickers has grown from 13,000 to 21,000.

Deia de Brito works with the Global Alliance of Wastepickers’ communications team, an initiative supported by Women in Informal Employment: Globalizing and Organizing. She has a master’s degree in journalism from the University of California, Berkeley