In many cities in developing countries, the informal sector plays an important role in managing municipal solid waste. The informal recovery of recyclables from the solid waste system reduces overall solid waste management (SWM) costs for municipalities. Apart from this, informal sector waste management activities also allow municipalities to achieve recycling objectives and reduce use of precious landfill space. Formalizing the roles of the informal sector and integrating their activities into municipal strategies could institutionalize and strengthen a labor market with valuable skills to offer.

Waste management systems in the cities of many developing countries could not be coordinated without the informal sector: waste pickers, scrap collectors, traders, and recyclers collect, sort, process, store, and trade waste materials. In fact, many more tons of recovered materials come via informal channels than formal channels. In most developing countries, as much as 15 to 20 percent of waste is managed by the informal sector.

Individual and public economic benefits

Profit-making opportunities for materials with high intrinsic value create incentives for much higher levels of recovery and recycling in the informal sector.

The informal recovery of recyclables also reduces overall SWM costs for municipalities by reducing the need for collection, transport, and disposal. The savings on transport depend on the point at which the material is removed from the waste stream for recycling. If material is recovered at the disposal site, transport costs are not reduced, but disposal costs are reduced. For example, Delhi, India saves around €6.7 to €7.5 million annually.

Environmental benefits

The increased recycling activities help municipalities reach recycling targets and save precious landfill space. It also reduces the extraction of raw materials and returns secondary raw materials to the production cycle. Since recycling requires less power than production processes with primary raw materials, there is a significant secondary benefit of reduced energy consumption. Additionally, informal sector recovery itself uses less energy since many informal activities rely on human or animal muscle traction, rather than motors.

Formalizing the informal

Attitudes of municipal authorities toward the informal sector vary: in some places there is hostility, in others indifference, and in some places they are regarded as a useful part of the SWM system and are given the opportunity to enhance their livelihoods.

The role of municipalities is critical to mobilizing the informal sector and organizing the informal valorization sector. For example, municipalities can integrate waste pickers into the collection of waste at the source, by giving them rights over recyclables and guaranteeing them regular access to waste. In 2006, the Pune Municipality in India granted waste pickers the right to collect waste and a service fee from households. In Bogota, Colombia, the appellate court struck down the exclusive right over waste of a municipal waste contractor and restored the right to waste to the waste pickers.

To transfer these rights, municipalities must enter into direct contractual or covenant relations with informal sector organizations. Given limited business knowledge, education, and socio-economic means, the informal sector needs support to organize into cooperatives or other legal structures. Municipalities or NGOs can provide legal support in establishing cooperatives, providing training, and creating other services to improve working conditions (such as identity cards and access to health insurance). In Bangladesh, for example, Waste Concern and other NGOs train waste pickers in organic waste recycling. The pickers then sell the compost to a large fertilizer company.

Partnering with the Private Sector

In the context of privatized waste collection services, collaboration between the informal sector and the formal waste collection sector is possible. Waste pickers can partner with waste collection enterprises or vice versa. For those who are not engaged in recycling, a partnership with the informal sector would reduce the volume of waste collected and would cut their transport costs. In Brazil, for example, the private sector delivers recyclables to informal sector recyclers, while informal recyclers make arrangements with formal recycling enterprises, processors, and waste buyers.

In some cases, conflicts may arise with the private sector. For the private contractor or enterprises engaged in collection on payment of paid-per-ton disposed at the landfill, the informal sector waste collection becomes a competitor and cuts into their profits. These firms have an interest in collecting the largest possible quantity of waste to increase their revenues. In this context, they may be inclined to develop strategies to access waste at the earliest possible stage or to prevent the informal sector from collecting waste.

In such a situation, the public sector should either help integrate the informal sector to work with the formal sector or ensure that contracts for private sector operators are designed in a way that ensure the informal sector has access to and the right to waste.

Regularizing and integrating informal recovery into the overall solid waste system could enhance recyclable recovery rates and reduce overall solid waste management costs. Generally, policies that facilitate the integration of the informal sector will result in an increase in the rate of material recovery. Consequently, disposal rates will drop, allowing for savings in transportation and landfill operations.

Many forms of waste valorization are found in different combinations: personal or commercial reuse, reuse with repair, recycling, and composting. In all these scenarios, municipalities make a net gain and can therefore reach higher recycling and landfill diversion rates quicker than with their conventional systems.

This article was adapted with permission from Proparco’s magazine, Private Sector & Development (Issue 15, October 2012).