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News & Press releases

From Waste Pickers to Eco-Warriors: SDG17 in Action along the Citarum River

In recent years, the issue of plastic waste and its impact on the environment has gained widespread attention. As societies strive to reduce their carbon footprint and promote sustainable practices, recycling has become crucial to waste management. In this context, informal waste pickers play a pivotal role in waste management, particularly in emerging economies where formal waste disposal systems need to be more robust. They contribute significantly to recycling efforts, help reduce the environmental footprint, and play a role in poverty alleviation. Informal waste pickers collect, sort, and sell recyclables from waste, often without formal recognition or support from local governments. They are predominantly present in emerging economies, where waste management infrastructures might be lacking or insufficient. Many aspects of their role have a substantial impact on emerging countries:

  • Contribution to Recycling Industries: Waste pickers play an indispensable role in the recycling chain. Collecting and sorting recyclables significantly reduce the burden on landfills and promote the reuse of materials.
  • Livelihoods and Poverty Alleviation: For many, waste picking is a source of livelihood. It provides an income for families, helping alleviate poverty in marginalized communities.
  • Environmental Impact: By diverting waste from landfills, waste pickers help reduce greenhouse gas emissions, groundwater contamination, and the spread of diseases.

Despite their essential role, informal waste pickers often operate in precarious conditions and face many hardships. They often work long hours under challenging conditions, with limited access to protective gear or proper training. They earn just enough to scrape by, usually less than a dollar a day, far below the minimum living standards, and might endure social stigma and discrimination.

Formally recognizing and integrating waste pickers can lead to increased efficiency in waste management, better working conditions for pickers, and overall socio-economic upliftment of communities. Acknowledging the vital role waste pickers play in recycling and waste management can lead to more inclusive policies and practices while equipping them with the necessary skills and tools to enhance their efficiency and safety. Raising awareness about the importance of waste pickers reduces stigma and promote respect for their profession in communities. Formal employment can also ensure that all the waste, not only the valuable part, is collected from the environment and disposed of properly.

From Fishermen to Eco-Warriors: RiverRecycle’s Collaborative Approach to Waste Management and Community Upliftment

Traditionally, the local communities around the Citarum River depended on farming and fishing. However, a new opportunity emerged as the river became increasingly polluted, with waste materials like PET bottles contaminating its waters. Recognizing the value of these discarded materials, many locals began to collect waste, particularly plastics, as an additional source of income. The Bening Saguling Foundation (BSF) provides boats at no cost to the pickers, enabling them to navigate different parts of the river, efficiently collecting plastic waste. In return, the waste pickers bring their collected plastics to the BSF for sorting, weighing, and eventual sale to aggregators. The BSF retains only a small percentage of the revenue to cover operational costs, ensuring that the majority goes back to the waste pickers. Furthermore, the foundation offers training to waste pickers, teaching them to identify and sort waste according to its commercial value, ensuring maximum profitability. When the Citarum Repair project commenced, some waste pickers received formal employment, further stabilizing their income. The proliferation of water hyacinths blocked waste intake at the RiverRecycle’s conveyor system, and this challenge offered the possibility for collaboration with local entities. The project scaled up its efforts by engaging the BSF and their scavengers, collecting plastic waste from across the river. In a win-win situation, they kept valuable items like PET bottles while the Citarum repair project procured the rest, compensating the scavengers fairly. This collaborative approach has led to a significant increase in waste collection for RiverRecycle and enabled a positive change for waste pickers not yet formally employed.

A similar convergence is not uncommon in RiverRecycle’s operations and occurred as well in Ghana, where fishermen started collecting plastic waste that otherwise would impede their fishing activities. Delivering the plastics to RiverRecycle’s facilities provided supplementary income for the fishermen and spearheaded an essential initiative in ocean cleanup.

The transformation along the Citarum River is a testament to community resilience and adaptability. The inception of RiverRecycle and the collaboration with BSF brought forth a revolutionary change in local waste management, and the installation of our river cleaner, paired with local partnerships, allowed waste pickers’ jobs to evolve. They are no longer restricted to collecting only PET plastics; they have begun collecting all plastic waste. This change brings environmental benefits since no debris is left in the environment, and it also diversifies the sources of income for waste pickers, empowering them with a broader range of recyclables to collect and sell. What sets RiverRecycle apart is its comprehensive approach that encompasses every waste category, including the notoriously hard-to-recycle plastics and the capacity to fulfill collaborations and partnerships supporting the local communities. Thanks to its holistic approach, RiverRecycle delivers a range of positive outcomes for both the environment and the local economy. While our team and partners may only be able to employ a limited number of waste pickers, our collaborative efforts can still impact the local economy, uplifting those who depend on informal recycling for their livelihoods. Ultimately, our goal is to contribute to a cleaner, more sustainable future for our environment and the people who call it home.

Conclusion

The path ahead for sustainable waste management is challenging but holds promise. RiverRecycle shows that collaborative efforts, leveraging technology and community engagement, can pave the way for sustainable waste management practices. To achieve sustainable change, it is also crucial to recognize the value that the informal economy brings to our society. We can empower these individuals by providing support such as access to education and training programs, protective equipment, and fair wages and integrating them into formal recycling systems while improving the environment and our society. Together, we can create a more sustainable future for our environment and the resilient individuals who navigate the streets and landfills, collecting and sorting recyclable materials to build a better world.


RiverRecycle works to solve the problem of ocean plastic pollution.

With projects active in seven countries, we are present on nine of the ten most polluted rivers in the world. Working in a circular economy framework, we provide a waste management service available at no cost to riverine municipalities grappling with waste pollution. Through our projects, we foster positive social and environmental change by integrating our work into the local economy of the communities we serve.