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The Heros of Ocean-wide Plastic Waste

Photo by OCG Saving The Ocean on Unsplash

There are millions of people who help to collect plastic waste all over the world. They are usually urban poor or marginalized groups who earn a living collecting about 60% of the world’s recycled plastics. Despite recycling the waste of others, waste pickers often lack waste collection services themselves. They are usually in unsafe and unhealthy environments with low or irregular incomes, and long working hours.

However, these collectors, which include women, children, and ethnic minorities do the jobs that infrastructure cannot. Around 12 million tons of plastic leak into the ocean every year, with 8 million tons of that total being from coastal mismanaged waste [1]. Informal waste workers play a key role in recovering end-of-life plastic products, recycling, and preventing plastic leakage into the ocean. To improve conditions, governments have started looking at legislation such as Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR), an environmental policy approach in which a producer’s responsibility for a product is extended to the post-consumer stage of a product’s life cycle [2].

But what happens to the waste pickers who risk their lives every day saving the environment? Well, waste pickers are now increasingly included in municipal waste management plans and services in various countries like Uruguay. Beyond collecting and sorting waste, waste pickers have also taken roles teaching people how to recycle waste properly simply because they deal with organizing plastic waste all day. Companies which generate a lot of plastic packaging, including Coca-Cola, Pepsico, Unilever and Nestlé, have also committed to improving the rights of people in the informal waste sector and it’s hoped that this process might eventually lead to manufacturers buying recycled material directly from waste pickers.

The Fair Circularity Initiative is an example of these corporations in action. Their collective effort with the backing of Tearfund–aims to have waste pickers’ human rights respected through improved incomes and working conditions, while ensuring that waste pickers are included in decision-making processes which affect them. Tearfund has also organized the Rubbish Campaign, calling on governments to ensure that the human rights of waste pickers are protected. With negotiations of a global, legally binding treaty to end plastic pollution at play, organizations and corporations have the ability to help people living in poverty “by reducing global plastics production, increasing access to waste collection and recycling, and delivering a just transition for waste pickers”, according to the Tearfund website.

This means that plastic pollution can end along with the beginning of fair inclusive practices that consider the current heroes of recycling.

[1] Boucher, J., Billard, G., Simeone, E. and Sousa, J. (2020). The marine plastic footprint. Gland, Switzerland: IUCN. viii+69 pp.

[2] OECD (2016), Extended Producer Responsibility: Updated Guidance for Efficient Waste Management, OECD Publishing, Paris.

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