It has been estimated that around 15-20 million people are involved in informal recycling. A staggering number, but, first things first, what does this mean?
It means that tens of millions of people are involved in collecting, separating, aggregating and reprocessing millions of tonnes of materials a year that would otherwise be waste. Why? Well, to put it simply, it’s the only way they can make a living.
A dirty and dangerous life perhaps, often looked down upon by others (as waste jobs often are), yet informal recycling delivers vital environmental services, provides raw materials for local industries and provides an income for millions.
The impact of the informal recycling sector, whose members are known as waste pickers, is substantial. Cities with high levels of informal recycling, like Nairobi, see recycling rates of up to 30%, higher than many cities with comprehensive formal recycling systems. Furthermore, this informal sector costs the public purse nothing and is in fact a net addition to the local economy through the livelihoods generated for waste pickers.
But there will always be part of the waste stream that no-one can turn into anything useful – hazardous waste, clinical waste and certain types of household waste – and that has to be disposed of. As cities grow and develop, the push for better ways of dealing with this residual waste grows, and as this happens, the challenge is to ensure that the informal recycling sector maintains its sterling work – and its benefits.
If cities get it wrong (and this has happened) the municipality can end up excluding the waste pickers from the waste management system – resulting in additional cost to the municipality; delivering what is often an inferior recycling service in terms of environmental an economic outcomes; and denying the poorest in the city a livelihood, plunging them further into poverty.
But if you get it right you can have your residual waste properly disposed of and work with the informal sector so they can continue their important work.
So how do we do this? Well this is where the term inclusive recycling comes in. Many municipalities in Latin America have blazed a trail in this area – developing strategies to work with existing waste picker co-operatives, helping them formalise, delivering greater incomes for their members and delivering comprehensive recycling systems, often alongside other residual waste collections or even delivering these themselves.
It doesn’t just make sense in terms of jobs, social justice and livelihoods, it makes sense in simple waste management terms as well.
WasteAid UK has been involved in an Inter-American Development Bank attempt to provide indicators that include such aspects of a city’s waste management – an important step to recognising the important contribution of these key players.
 There are the first signs of a reversal of a multi-national privatisation policy in Cairo, after nearly 10 years of exclusive modernisation, focusing on contracting as a sub-category of access to “normal” business niches in the solid waste system for formal and informal recycling entrepreneurs (Iskandar and Shaker 2007).
 An example is the support given by para-statal institutions in Brazil, such as Petrobras and Banco do Brazil, to the national movement of waste pickers in supporting and strengthening their networks of cooperatives. This is part of Brazil’s strategy to strengthen waste pickers as economic actors by giving support to the creation of commercialisation networks which aim to unite local cooperatives under single umbrella organisations responsible for coordinating the sale and value-added processing of recyclable material on the market (Dias and Alves 2008).