An Ode to the Informal Waste Ecosystem

Informal Waste Ecosystem

What things about us humans are unnatural? That was the first question we were all asked during our opening lecture on environmental science. The most popular answer given was technology. Not the answer our professor was looking for. The answer was “waste”. We were all visibly confused. We all generate waste, how is that unnatural? Our professor told us to think a little harder. Just like that, we all had an epiphany.  

What is a waste by definition? Something that is either worthless, faulty or has no use. If you think about it, our nature does not have the properties of waste. In nature, one organism’s waste is food for another organism. Our environment has a closed-loop system, nutrients, and energy constantly flowing in a loop that cycles around growth, decay, and rebirth.  

Why am I saying all of this? Well, that is because waste and waste management is a huge problem for all of us. Every year, we as humans generate a whopping 2 billion tonnes of waste. Do you know what this means? We would need 1.7 planet earth to absorb the waste we humans generate. On top of this, effective waste management is ridiculously expensive. A study by World Bank estimated that a municipality would need to spend 20 to 50 percent of its budget to manage its city’s waste. Therefore, many rapidly developing countries have struggled to provide waste management services to all its citizens. 

However, there is a silver lining in all of this. As the famous saying goes “one man’s trash is another man’s treasure. An ecosystem has risen in many of these countries to meet the waste management needs of its people. This ecosystem is what we call the informal waste ecosystem. They are an integral part of many societies around the world, and yet many people are still unclear on how they exactly operate. Having worked with the informal waste ecosystem for 2 years, I believe there is a lot we can learn from them. Therefore, in this article, let us take the time to understand two fundamental questions about the informal waste ecosystem:  

  1. How does the informal waste ecosystem work? 
  2. What are the benefits and disadvantages of this ecosystem? 

Watch: Sustainable and Unsustainable Practices 

The Robust Informal Waste Ecosystem Network 

Before we understand how the informal waste ecosystem works, we need to know the 3 main actors who are in this supply chain and what they do.  

1. Waste Pickers

Quite arguably the most important actor in this supply chain. They collect waste material from the streets, dustbins, and landfills. In some places, these waste pickers use a tricycle to buy waste material directly from households. These types of waste pickers are commonly known as iterant buyers. Waste pickers usually don’t have a shop or storage space and use a large sack to collect any waste material they find. They rarely segregate their waste, which means they are collecting paper, plastic, metal, glass, etc. all in the same sack.   

waste picker


Source – The Humble Beginning

2. Scrap Shops

Scrap shops are small aggregators who collect and store waste material. They predominantly buy their waste materials from waste pickers and households. These aggregators do minimal segregation. For example, they will segregate and store paper, plastic, metal, and glass separately. Some even do further segregation such as segregating and storing plastic bottles separately 

A Local Scrap Shop

Source – A Local Scrap Shop

3. Middlemen

Middlemen are large aggregators who buy waste material from scrap shops and sell it to recyclers. They typically own a large facility and employ 5-10 people. Middlemen predominantly specialize in what material they buy, does precise segregation and sometimes minimal processing. For example, you could have a middleman that only buys plastic bottles. They would have the labels, caps, and any excess water removed from the plastic bottles. Segregate the plastic bottles based on colour. They then either will sell sacks of segregated plastic bottles to a recycler or might shred the plastic bottles and sell them as plastic flakes to a recycler.  

Middleman Facility


Middleman Facility

How does the Informal Waste Ecosystem Work? 

Now that we know who the actors of the informal waste ecosystem are, it is easier to explain how they operate. Their operations start with the waste picker, who scavenges the land for waste material. Once the waste picker has accumulated enough waste, they sell it to a local scrap shop. The local scrap shop does minimal segregation and stores the material. The scrap shop then sells each of their stored material to the respective middlemen. For example, they would sell plastic to a plastic middleman and paper to a paper middleman. These middlemen do the final detailed level of segregation and minimal processing before selling it to the recycler.  

I find it fascinating that when municipalities and formal service providers failed to provide waste collection service to all households, an informal waste ecosystem emerged to fill this gap. Not only has the informal waste ecosystem created an effective social business model, but they have also inadvertently created a robust decentralised supply chain that is cheap and efficient. However, as with all things, the informal waste ecosystem has its ups and downs.  

Pros & Cons of the Informal Waste Ecosystem 

Pros 

In many rapidly developing countries, despite being socially marginalised and having to work in poor conditions, the informal waste ecosystem contributes significantly to waste management by collecting, sorting, trading, and sometimes processing waste material. Look at all these studies that show how vital the informal waste ecosystem is: 

  1. Linzer and Salhover in 2014 estimated that the informal ecosystem recycled 17% to 38% of the municipal solid waste generated in urban China.  
  2. Wilson and his group of researchers reported that in Bamako, Mali, the informal sector is responsible for 100% of the city’s recycling activities.  
  3. India’s plastic recycling rate is 60% (three times higher than the global average of 20%) and its PET bottle recycling rate is at 80% because of the robust informal waste ecosystem 

By providing this waste collection and recycling service, the informal waste ecosystem is preventing waste from entering landfills and thus reducing environmental pollution. UNEP’s 2010 report revealed that informal recycling prevents around 30% (in Jakarta) and 15% (Delhi and Bangalore) of waste ending up in landfills. The knock-on effect of this is that these municipalities need to only collect less waste, which means reduced transport and infrastructure cost 

In Delhi and Bangalore, the informal waste ecosystem reduces the cost of waste collection and disposal by approximately 13,700 USD/day! On the flip side, when Egypt tried to replace the informal waste ecosystem with a private waste collector, the country witnessed a sharp decline in waste recovery rates. This indicates how important the informal waste ecosystem is efficiently collecting waste.  

This self-financing informal waste ecosystem not only helps municipalities recover its waste but also provides an income opportunity to 1% of the urban population in many countries. Linzner and Lange in their 2013 report estimated that informal waste management systems generate 10 to 40 times more than waste management systems in high-income countries.  

Isn’t it amazing how an organically grown informal waste sector is able to help keep the city clean, respond quickly to demand-driven market forces and constantly adapt to its changing environment? Like how all good things must come to an end, I need to talk about the disadvantages of the informal waste ecosystem. 

Cons 

Despite the truly amazing benefits provided by the informal waste sector, several studies have also identified serious problems such as poor working and living conditions, child labour and incomplete school education for adults. Having witnessed some of these problems first-hand, it is truly heart breaking to see.  

You’ll find informal workers walking under the boiling hot sun with no footwear and collecting waste in hazardous locations with no protective equipment. Due to this, many informal waste workers often have injuries from broken glass, needles, metal, etc. They are unable to treat their wounds because they simply don’t have the time or money. These people often make just enough money to feed themselves and their families for the day.  

In a lot of places, you’ll witness families working together with their children to collect waste from streets and dustbins. Children who are unable to go to school because of the high cost of schooling and the family’s inability to afford school uniform and equipment for their children 

The thing that annoyed me the most was the negative social stigma around informal waste workers. When I was in the field, I often found citizens and authorities harassing these waste workers for either looking dirty or simply accusing them of stealing things. These are workers who have no social benefits and work in hazardous conditions to keep our city clean. And, what do we do to reward them? Shun them away.  

It is clear as day as to why the informal waste ecosystem is pivotal for waste management. However, there is a long way for us to go if we want to properly integrate them into our society. Policymakers and government officials have started to notice their benefits but have been incredibly slow in responding to their challenges. As we move to an ever more wasteful world, the least we can do is appreciate the unsung heroes who are doing their absolute best to keep our environment clean and safe.  

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