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Monday, 26 August 2013 12:10

Waste Management as a human right!

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 Antonis Mavropoulos' featured article on Sweep-Net's website 

We all know that Informal Recyclers are an integral part of the waste management and recycling systems in both developed and developing countries. Especially in most low- and middle-income developing countries recycling is generally carried out by the informal sector, which also often provides primary collection services. However, it must be clear that by informal sector recycling (ISR) we refer to ‘individuals or enterprises who are involved in recycling and waste management activities but are not sponsored, financed, recognized or allowed by the formal solid waste authorities, or who operate in violation of or in competition with formal authorities” (Scheinberg 2010), which is quite different to other contexts, where the term may be synonymous with the ‘black economy’.

Actually, informal sector waste and recycling workers and businesses can be and often are registering with the authorities and pay taxes: in this case, the definition of informality relates to their lack of recognized status within the solid waste sector. There is an increasing consensus among all stakeholders and experts that the informal recycling sector should not and in fact cannot be ignored while attempting to improve waste and resource management systems in developing countries (Chaturvedi 2011, Sang-Arun 2011). There is a growing evidence which suggests that these activities can be beneficial to formal municipal waste and resource management, in addition to providing a livelihood to around 0.5% of the urban population (Scheinberg 2010, Wilson 2012). Specifically, informal sector and micro-enterprise recycling, reuse and repair systems achieve considerable recycling rates – often 20-30% wt. in low-income countries (Wilson 2009; Wilson 2012) and can, thus, save local authorities around 20% or more of what they would otherwise need to spend on waste management, representing many $ millions per annum in large cities.

Learning from failures
The story of Buenos Aires Cartoneros (Schamber, 2013) is very characteristic from a historical and sociological perspective. The attitude of public authorities and formal waste management sector to informal recycling is often very negative regarding it as backward, unhygienic and generally incompatible with modern waste management systems. However, it would be ironic to eliminate already existing and well performing recycling systems trying to apply the waste hierarchy framework with formal and sometime questionable ways (Schamber, 2013).

The story of Cairo (Fahmi 2010) is an emblematic one regarding the failures to modernize waste management and it has failed just because the actual role and contribution of informal sector was completely underestimated or ignored both in collection and recycling activities. As it has been mentioned for Cairo (Iskadar 2009) “Traditional waste management systems are embedded in realities which are too complex for official, conventional systems to understand. They are socially constructed and thus also difficult for engineers to understand… (Informal systems) are market based and derive from knowledge and information about popular market and trading systems…They achieve the highest recycling rates and generate employment for significantly higher numbers of people than official systems do…The question posed to waste manager of cities therefore should be: how can we give these people …their rightful place in a more efficient system to serve the city, the economy of the poor and the environment?”

However, persistent factual and perceived issues with the activities of the informal sector (such as occupational and public health and safety, child labour, uncontrolled pollutant flows, untaxed activities, association with crime and political collusion, incompatible with the image of a modern city) result in poor inclusion/integration into official systems, despite the long-standing efforts of external support organizations, such as international donors and non-governmental organizations (NGOs).

We need to change the attitude, we need not to ignore the real problems involved in ISR activities (Quiroga, 2013) but to put them in another conceptual framework and understand ISR as a major opportunity for win-win solutions – building recycling rates, protecting and developing people’s livelihoods, addressing the negative aspects of current informal recycling on health and the environment, and reducing costs to the city of managing its wastes – if the informal sector can be included more successfully within an integrated and sustainable waste management system.

For that purpose, we need new tolls and new ideas.

New tools
As for new tools, a recent publication (Velis 2012) deals with the conceptual understanding of the different dimensions of ISRs and tries to identify ways on how best to promote the inclusion/integration of the informal sector within a city’s waste management system. In order to provide a sound basis for such guidance, authors have developed a novel framework (InteRa tool) for classifying and analyzing, along with a tool for rapidly evaluating and visualizing possible interventions to promote inclusion and integration of ISR in a city’s solid waste management system. This aims to be a comprehensive, integrated, and structured systems approach, for the first time drawing from and bringing together all aspects of the phenomenon into a practically applicable tool, designed to maximize chances of success and deliver benefits to all stakeholders. Figure 1 summarizes the overall analytical framework and typology of the Intera tool and depicts its interdependencies. The three interfaces of ISR (Solid waste management interface, Social interface, Materials’ value chain interface) are shown as 3 triangles set around the organizational aspects which are considered the major structural component of any intervention related to informal sector.

conceptual framework ISR

As for new ideas, as the emerging metropolises in the developing world are growing much faster than our capacity to deliver sanitation infrastructure and waste management solutions, we need to rethink ISR role. ISR is the only mean available to deliver change in waste management and recycling in most of the cases. They are also the real link between sound waste management, resource recovery and the fight against poverty (Mavropoulos 2011, 2012). And last but not least, ISR are the human network required to create and spread behavioural changes citywide, utilizing their own knowledge and interconnectivity.

As I am writing this paragraph, the idea of sound waste management as a human right is emerging through my thoughts. And I believe that this is the way forward for delivering change in waste management and recycling, especially in the developing world. Let's work with ISR in order to create a new game changing idea.

Sound waste management is an elementary component of health protection. It is a key – issue of environmental quality and a corner-stone of governance. t affects directly the daily life and it creates important social and economic impacts.

Sound Waste Management should not be a privilege. It must not be depended on personal income, race, gender or national discriminations. It must be easily accessible, affordable and suitable to local conditions.

For all those reasons, let' s make sound waste management with minimal environmental and health impacts no less than a human right. And ISR is the key-linkage to document such a requirement.



  • Chaturvedi, A. (2011, E-Waste management for a sustainable future. ISWA Beacon Conference on Waste Prevention and Recycling. Buenos Aires, Argentina, available at
  • Fahmi Wael, Keith Sutton, 2010, Cairo’s contested garbage: Sustainable Solid waste Management and the Zabaleen’s right to the City, Sustainability / Open Access, 2010, 2, 1765 -1783; doi: 10.3390/su2061765
  • Iskandar L. 2009, Cairo: A colossal case of waste mismanagement to learn from, Waste Management & Research 2009 Dec;27(10):939-40
  • Mavropoulos Antonis 2011, “Globalization, megacities and waste management”, ISWA 2011 World Congress, Daegu, Korea, available at
  • Mavropoulos Antonis 2012, "The future of waste management", ORBIT 2012 available at
  • Quiroga María Alejandra 2013, " Assessment of a SWM System: Social Impacts on Former Waste Pickers. Case Study: San Carlos City, Philippines" available at
  • Sang-Arun, J. 2011, Participatory recycling business model: where the informal and the formal meet. ISWA Beacon Conference on Waste Prevention and Recycling. Buenos Aires, Argentina, ARS, available at
  • Schamber Pablo Javier 2013, " The Informal Sector in Solid Waste Management: The Case of “Cartoneros” of Buenos Aires"
  • Scheinberg A, Wilson DC and Rodic L 2010, Solid Waste Management in the World’s Cities. Third edition in UN-Habitat’s State of Water , UN Human Settlements Programme, p. 88-89, 113-114, 138, ISBN Number: 978-1-84971-169-2
  • Velis Costas, Wilson David, Rocca Ondina, Smith Stephen, Mavropoulos Antonis, and Cheeseman Chris 2012, InteRa - a new analytical framework and tool for integrating the informal sector recycling in waste and resource management systems in developing countries, Waste Management & Research 2012 30: 43 DOI: 10.1177/0734242X12454934
  • Wilson David 2011, Acting alone to partnerships – Strategic approach for sustainable waste management In: UN-Commission for Sustainable Development (CSD) Intersessional Conference on Building Partnerships for Moving towards Zero Waste, 16–18 February 2011, Chinzanso, Tokyo, Japan
  • Wilson David, Rodic Ljiljana, Scheinberg Anne, Velis Costas, Alabaster Graham 2012, “Comparative analysis of solid waste management in 20 cities”, Waste Management & Research 2012 30:237
  • Wilson David, Velis Costas, Cheeseman Chris 2006, Role of informal sector recycling in waste management in developing countries, Habitat International 30 (2006) 797–808
  • Wilson DC, Araba AO, Chinwah K, et al. 2009 Building recycling rates through the informal sector. Waste Management 29: 629–635.


Read 4318 times Last modified on Monday, 26 August 2013 13:50
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