Waste Pickers’ Choice: Work amid COVID Risk or Stay Home and Starve
The Brazilian waste picker Alex Cardoso was born and reborn many times among recyclable materials. Son and grandson of waste pickers, he had his first life-changing experience around paper boxes and plastic bottles when he was only two months old. His parents worked as self-employed waste pickers and collected materials every day to feed their family, carrying their newborns to work — that is, to the streets. On this particular day, one of the paper boxes collected hours earlier fell off the cart while they were heading home. The father, Alceu Cardoso, was inclined to leave the box on the street, but the mother, Tânia Maria, decided to pick it up. That was a lucky call: Alex was quietly sleeping inside that box. They had put their son there hours earlier to keep him warm during work. This “almost tragic” story happened 41 years ago.
Four decades later, in 2020, Alex experienced the same fear for his life among recycled materials. With the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, he felt constantly in danger of being infected while working. But there was no choice other than to keep working. As most waste pickers in Brazil rely on income from the daily collection of materials, with no other sources of funds, they must either put themselves at risk or starve to death.
“Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, we already worked in a pandemic-like situation. Most waste pickers in Brazil have to go to the streets every day without protection, exposed to all kinds of risks. Since last year, with the novel coronavirus, the vulnerability of the activity became more obvious,” he says.
Like thousands of others working in the solid waste sector, Alex faces the challenges of being a waste picker every day, an activity that, despite being essential, lacks both recognition from society and protection by the government. In fact, to most people in Latin America, waste pickers are still invisible, and that is why they are one of the groups that have been hit the hardest since the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic, with thousands becoming ill and almost no access to information or support from local authorities.
“There are particular challenges for the solid waste sector in general, whether formal or informal, because of the vulnerability of the activity due to unsanitary work environments, and the pandemic added an extra layer of vulnerability to this already precarious work,” explains Sonia Dias, a researcher at Women in Informal Employment: Globalizing and Organizing (WIEGO).
The hazardous reality
The National Recyclable Waste Pickers Movement (MNCR) estimates that there are around 800,000 waste pickers in Brazil. For years, the movement has been trying to have the activity recognized by the government. Some improvements have been made: In 2002, for example, the Brazilian National Classification of Occupations (CBO) recognized waste collecting as an occupation and entered it as such in the correspondent national registry. But the fact is that waste pickers are still informal workers, unprotected by legislation. Today, only 10 to 20 percent of them are organized through cooperatives or associations (groups, related or not to local governments, that regulate or protect an activity). For most of them, the hazardous reality is to go out every day without safety gear, which is particularly critical in the current health crisis, given the risks of infected materials getting mixed in with the general waste stream. Studies have shown that the novel coronavirus is transmitted mainly via tiny droplets that people exhale as they breathe, talk and cough. But these virus particles can remain infectious after a day spent on cardboard, at least two days on steel, and three on plastic. With little information about the risks, waste pickers remained (and some still are) in contact with all these materials for months with no protection.
Worldwide, the reality is not that different. The International Labor Organization estimates that only 4 million of the 19 million to 24 million people in the waste management and recycling sector worldwide are formally employed. This might seem controversial, since they perform an essential service for the sustainability and health of our cities. According to the Institute of Applied Economic Research, waste pickers in Brazil—classified as those who “collect, select, and sell recyclable materials such as paper, cardboard, glass, as well as ferrous and non-ferrous materials and other reusable materials” (definition by the Ministry of Labor and Employment/CBO) — are responsible for around 90 percent of all recycling in the country, playing a vital role in the circular and green economies.
“Over the years, I have learned that waste pickers help to solve one of the worst problems in the capitalist world. Even so, we must help and support each other all the time, because society still does not understand that this is a decent profession,” explains Alex Cardoso, who at 41 years of age is also a member of the MNCR and a university student in Porto Alegre in Brazil’s South Region.
Impacts of the pandemic
According to a study conducted by WIEGO, the early months of the pandemic were the hardest for waste pickers in Brazil. With municipal and state decrees calling on people to stay home, the collection and manual sorting of recyclable waste were suspended in several municipalities. Also, as a number of manufacturing plants went out of business, the buyers of recyclable materials either stopped buying or started to pay prices well below the standard. The prices have dropped by 50 percent on average, making the collection of various materials less attractive. In April, in order to generate income, some pickers resorted to the emergency aid offered by the federal government, but President Jair Bolsonaro indicated the intention to veto the inclusion of these workers as beneficiaries, and the majority of them lacked information about how or if it was possible to access those benefits. Aside from the economic issue, there was the health issue.
“Surveys conducted in several Brazilian capitals throughout 2020 by the Brazilian Association of Sanitary and Environmental Engineering (ABES) showed that people who work with waste and recyclable materials had higher rates of death and contamination when compared to other activities,” explains Emília Wanda Rutkowski, an associate professor at the State University of Campinas (UniCamp) and a member of ABES.
“I lost a lot of colleagues in the beginning of the pandemic, and the worst part is that they died, and we don’t even know where they are buried. It’s like they just disappeared,” says Carlos Antonio dos Reis, 53 years old. Born in São Paulo, the biggest city in the country, he has been working as a self-employed waste picker since he was nine years old, and because of the vulnerability of his work he has been living in extreme conditions for over a year.
What kept Carlos and so many other waste pickers alive and hopeful—even though Brazil was one of the countries most affected by the pandemic, with over 400 thousand deaths—were the solidarity movements that provided support for these workers. “I was involved in organized movements that helped us to educate each other about the risks of our activity during the pandemic and showed us ways to protect ourselves. After the first dramatic months with no work, we started do go back to the streets with masks and other Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) that were either homemade or donated by these voluntary groups. There are still a lot of risks, but at least we felt a little safer while doing our jobs,” he says.
A new chapter for waste pickers
In fact, the WIEGO study showed how cooperatives and organized movements can play an important role in the lives of waste pickers, especially in critical times. Researchers found that after serious disruption in the first months of the pandemic, most cooperatives and associations were back in operation by May 2020. Almost all of them were using PPE, almost 80 percent had sent vulnerable members into isolation with their income guaranteed, and 45 percent were quarantining scrap before sorting it. Also, the prices paid for those materials slowly began to normalize.
“Cooperatives have helped waste pickers address a wide range of important, day-to-day issues, including negotiating with public authorities and private intermediaries, occupational safety and health, gender-based violence, housing problems, legal protection, social protection, and access to storage space and local marketplaces,” Sonia Dias explains.
But these improvements are still not enough to protect the solid waste sector. In 2021, a new survey conducted by the Project Cata Saúde Viraliza outlined the situation of waste pickers across the country a year after the beginning of the pandemic. The survey showed that many are still working without proper protective equipment and a number of them report shortages of recyclable materials available on the streets for collection.
“As some activities from the solid waste sector were suspended at the beginning of the pandemic, people were discouraged from separating regular trash from recyclable material. But months passed and the activity was re-established, and still there was no government action to re-educate people about the importance of separating garbage for the recycling process. The result is that waste pickers today have less recyclable material available for collection. Many end up having to collect regular trash and separate it themselves. The result is that they can sell only a small percentage of what they collect on the streets,” says Dr. Rutkowski.
For many researchers, one positive aspect of this crisis is that it has shed light on the importance and vulnerability of waste pickers worldwide. There is a consensus that governments around the globe will not integrate informal workers into their waste management systems overnight, but the workers’ historical fight for recognition might be entering a new chapter after the COVID-19 pandemic is over. Since their work has proved to be an essential part of the waste management system in every city of the globe, these workers should not stop their activity, but rather must be given proper conditions to continue working in a secure environment.
And in order to contribute to that—now and after the pandemic is over—everyone can do their part by learning how to discard waste properly. It is recommended that recyclable materials be cleaned with soap and water or bleach prior to disposal. Material that is not washed should be left isolated for a period of five days prior to disposal. Sanitary protocols also recommend that masks, gloves and PPE should be discarded in regular trash, and if someone in the household shows any COVID-19 symptoms, all the material should be disposed of with the regular trash, wrapped in two layers of plastic bags.
*Jaqueline Sordi is a Brazilian journalist and biologist, specializing in science and environmental journalism. She has a master’s degree in environmental journalism at UCLA and is currently a Ph.D. candidate in communications at Federal University of Rio Grande do Sul.