Latin American pickers: planting the seeds for ‘grassroots’ recycling

Report from The Economist underscores the need for integrated approaches to recycling that incorporate grassroots recycling efforts by pickers.

  • São Paulo, the City of Buenos Aires and Bogotá have the best environments for “grassroots” recycling, where people in need collect plastic bottles and other recyclables to earn income
  • A long road lies ahead for inclusive recycling in most other Latin American cities, however
  • Regulations that integrate grassroots recyclers are fundamental to achieving greater inclusion
  • Grassroots recyclers earn about 80% of the minimum wage; intermediaries reap as much as three times the value of the recycling material, on average
  • The public should become more involved in solid waste management processes and recycling

Important efforts are underway to incorporate grassroots recyclers into integrated waste management systems in Latin America, according to a new report from The Economist Intelligence Unit (The EIU). The study analyzed 12 cities in the region and their openness to including informal recyclers—sometimes called waste pickers, or grassroots recyclers—into city-wide systems. Despite a promising record in a few locations, a lack of data on inclusive recycling, the weak organization of local associations and low citizen participation in recycling are significant challenges in the cities analyzed. The study recommends formally incorporating recyclers into waste management processes through contracts or other mechanisms, and legally recognizing their profession to advance their social inclusion.

The report, Progress and Challenges for Inclusive Recycling: An Assessment of 12 Latin American and Caribbean Cities, benchmarks the institutional and operational context for inclusive recycling in the region. It was developed by The Economist Intelligence Unit and commissioned by the Multilateral Investment Fund (MIF), a member of the Inter-American Development Bank Group (IDB), as part of the Regional Initiative for Inclusive Recycling (IRR), a partnership led by the MIF, the IDB’s Water and Sanitation Division, Avina Foundation, the Latin American Re­cyclers Network (RedLACRE), The Coca-Cola Company Latin America and PepsiCo. The study uses a framework of 37 qualitative indicators to assess the current state of inclusion and the formal organisa­tion of grassroots recyclers into a city’s Integrated Solid Waste Management (ISWM) value chain. “Inclusive recycling” is defined as those waste management systems that priori­tise recovery and recycling and recognize the role of recyclers as key stakeholders, with a goal of bringing them into the formal economy. The study is intended to highlight gaps in the informal recycling process and encourage policy change.

The Latin American and Caribbean (LAC) re­gion has enjoyed sustained population growth and economic development over the past 15 years. At the same time, the region has under­gone a continuous urbanization process, with 80% of the population now living in cities. This growth has led to higher con­sumption and an increase in the generation of solid waste. At the same, many low-income families routinely sort through trash on the streets, in open dumps and at other points in the municipal waste stream, searching for materials with po­tential resale value.

These grassroots recy­clers are an important part of the recycling ecosystem—they contribute an estimated 25%-50% of all recycled munici­pal waste collected in the LAC region, according to UN Hab­itat, and the income they generate is an important source of support for their families. Grassroots recyclers also support municipal governments by ex­panding the service life of sanitary landfills, re­ducing transportation costs, lessening the need to extract new materials, and providing envi­ronmental and public health benefits, such as the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions.  Yet they earn only about 80% of the minimum wage, while the intermediaries to whom they sell reap as much as three times the value of the recycling material, on average.

Estrella Peinado-Vara, Senior Specialist of the MIF, said grassroots recyclers should be incorporated formally into waste management supply chains if Latin American cities are to“transform their lineal economy models of ‘extraction, production and dispos­al’ to circular economy models of ‘reduction, reuse, and recycling’”.

São Paulo, the City of Buenos Aires and Bogotá lead the region in inclusive recycling. São Paulo stands out for its strong participatory poli­cy, which transcends the local and national levels; Brazil has made significant advances in this field over the past decades. The City of Buenos Aires scores well for its well-crafted regulations, recognition of the service provided by recyclers, and the pro­ductive and organizational level of formal or­ganisations. Bogotá has solid recycling regulations, and recycling organisa­tions have made themselves visible at the national level. As a result of their efforts in Co­lombia, grassroots recyclers are recognized as providers of public sanitation services and have a right to compensation similar to that of providers of non-recycla­ble waste services. Some cities have even incorpo­rated recyclers into their public policy processes by legally recognizing their work or through direct contracting or fixed payments for services rendered. In São Paulo, the role of the “Recyclable Material Picker” is recognized in the Brazilian Code of Occupations.

The study also analyses formal grassroots recycler or­ganisations in terms of their political influ­ence, internal and external representation, and productive capacity, and finds that these are typically very weak. Finally, citizens in Latin America and the Caribbean have little awareness of the challenges affecting grassroots recyclers and the social, economic and environmental bene­fits they generate.

The report and accompanying benchmarking model are available free of charge at