A heartbeat for sustainability: When the circular economy and recyclers' grassroots route planning unite

Green cities
According to the UN, one of the four main problems standing in the way of achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) is the growing mountains of waste. A World Bank study has shown that waste management currently accounts for about 1.6 billion tons of climate-damaging greenhouse gases - around five percent of global greenhouse gas emissions. Without improvement measures, these emissions could grow to a staggering 2.6 gigatons by 2050.

Pollution from these raw materials threatens biodiversity, human health and important sectors of the economy, with improper waste disposal causing high economic costs. Municipalities, mostly responsible for waste disposal and recycling, are often overwhelmed with this task.

A circular economy may be the answer. A critical strategy for achieving global sustainability goals and improving the lives of people worldwide, a circular economy is a system where materials never become waste and nature is regenerated. It aims to reduce the environmental impact of human activities and create a more sustainable and resilient economy by encouraging collaboration between governments, businesses, civil society and consumers.

An important goal of a circular economy is to drive the transformation of the waste sector from a disposal service to a sustainable resource economy, while protecting the environment and creating employment opportunities. In South America, recicladores, previously known as “dirty underdogs”, are an integral part of implementing circular economy models. Without them, the recycling of materials in these countries would not happen, because the official systems would be overwhelmed with the sheer quantities of waste. The recicladores are the impetus for this circular economy at grassroots level.

Waste pickers contribute to climate protection

Throughout the country, recicladores are making their mark on cityscapes. There are about 100,000 recicladores or waste pickers in Colombia, not all of whom are identified because not all are formally registered or part of a waste pickers association. In fact, only 10% are organised, while the rest do undeclared work in marginalised and precarious jobs.

In Latin America, 25 to 50 percent of all materials that recycling companies process come from waste pickers, so their work contributes to reducing the extraction and production of recyclable materials, as well as greenhouse gas emissions from trucks.

"We want to lead the recicladores further out of informality," says Andrès Cortès, technical advisor from Swisscontact. “The goal is to collaborate with other cooperatives in their formalization and to integrate the recicladores into formal associations, and perhaps even to integrate them as employees into a recycling company in the future.”

Glossy brochures, front pages are disposed of separately.

A win-win situation in Cali

The city of Cali produces around 1,922 tons of waste per day. Only 14 to 15 percent is recycled, even though studies show that 30 percent could be recycled. Landfills continue to fill up and, according to the Ministry of Environment, more than 300 landfills in the country will reach their maximum capacity in the coming years.

The city is a good example of how there are opportunities for waste picker cooperatives. Nicolás Sarriá, Director of Circular Economy in Carvajal Industries, Cali, had this to say: “Carvajal was founded in 1904 in Cali, Colombia. It is a family business that has evolved over generations to become a pan-regional company with a presence in 10 countries across 3 sectors: Paper and Packaging, Technology and Services, and Real Estate. Carvajal is an organization committed to caring for the environment, communities, and the more than 17,000 employees that make up this family.”

One significant challenge that industries like Carvajal face is the disconnection between various stakeholders. They bridge this gap by emphasizing the importance of understanding the entire value chain. “It’s not merely about implementing a policy; it’s about seizing an opportunity to make a meaningful impact”, says Sarriá. “It’s equally crucial for waste pickers and waste picker associations to understand that they’re an integral part of a larger ecosystem, not just a standalone process.”

Carvajal has dedicated programs and strategies aimed at working within these chains, grasping the intricacies of each company’s role and accelerating progress. 

"Our purpose is to serve the community because we firmly believe that mutual benefit is the only path to sustainable growth. The idea is to create a win-win situation for all parties involved. It’s not just about our economy; it’s about building a shared community."
Nicolás Sarriá
Irene Ramirez in her operations centre
In conversation with a colleague from another recycling centre
The presses were designed and built by the employees themselves.
With her daughter, who is also involved in the company.

Survival amidst the great dilemma of urban waste

Irene Ramirez is a former waste picker who developed her skills over the years with training and courses at SENA, Entidad de formación para el trabajo del Estado colombiano. Today, she runs the recycling company REMA, working with private companies and local authorities.

“Rema was born in 2009”, explains Ramírez. “When we first started, there were only 95 waste pickers. The formalization process happened in 2017 with 120 waste pickers and today, there are 400, 60% women and 40% men.”

Waste Pickers come to REMA in different ways; looking for a job, being women with no opportunities, or simply to find a place where they fit in. But they need to be ready to participate in training and make sure to qualify for a fee. At this point, certain rules are established that everyone must follow, which ensures a more efficient functioning of the organisation. It is important to note that the organisation will check if waste pickers have at least two years of experience in recycling and comply with schedules and frequencies before formalizing the membership. Being formalized implies moving towards a more structured stage to avoid being out of the market.

If waste pickers have a specific route and are committed to meeting schedules and frequencies, they can access a better fee, which is paid by taxpayers. This is also based on the amount of work they do during the month, calculated in tons. However, these fees are backed by the Superintendencia de Servicios Públicos and are managed through a self-monitoring mechanism.

REMA keeps a record of the weight of the materials collected by each of the waste pickers who are part of the organisation. On a monthly basis, they are paid according to the weight, as well as the quality of the material collected.

"Last year, a waste picker could earn around 60,000 to 70,000 pesos (US$ 15 to 17) per day, but today, due to the decrease in the prices of recyclable materials, they are earning approximately 15,000 to 20,000 pesos (US$3.5 to 5) per day. This situation is mainly due to the significant decrease in the value of recyclable materials, especially plastic, which has lost 50% of its market value. This price decrease represents an additional challenge that affects the income of waste pickers."
Irene Ramirez

The struggle for gender equality and recognition

It could be said that recycling is more a women's work. The majority of women who work in recycling are mothers, and as recycling is a subsistence job and an independent activity that requires more flexibility, it is suited to women with small children. 

In terms of the gender inequalities that make it difficult for women to access leadership and decision-making positions, this is not unique to recycling. For Irene, it was not easy to work in a profession where men were mainly in charge. More than once, as a woman and a waste collector, she stood in front of influential businessmen to defend the rights of her fellow women. And without having studied law, she memorized the regulations requiring businesses to manage waste and was able to convince them that recycling cooperatives were suitable.

The road to strengthening the recycling community was not easy. “The waste industry is very rough and there are many interests at stake,” says Ramírez. “When it comes to negotiating and selling the material, the male figure is still in demand, but they meet women who fight and negotiate just as well.”

Irene Ramirez coordinating appointments with her employees

“In Colombia, women are demonstrating that they are strong, intelligent, and capable leaders in any field,” she says. “We need the chance to hold leadership positions, serving as role models for other women and proving our ability to succeed in any endeavor. Regarding my recycling journey, leaving home at a young age brought numerous challenges and while I lacked formal education, my unwavering dedication and tireless effort helped me overcome obstacles on my path to where I am today".

For Irene, formalizing her cooperative has been key to changing the lives of many recyclers. 

"Being organised means economic income and social recognition. You get more contacts and become more visible in the community. Waste pickers are often overlooked, but formalization puts us in a place where we are recognised. By organising ourselves, we were able to ask the municipality to recognize us as workers. There are colleagues who pushed carts while collecting rubbish and are now truck drivers and operating the recycling plants. Most of them have come from the province to work in the city. We have paved the way for the emergence of other cooperatives in the country."
Irène Ramirez

And while conditions have improved for many of those committed to recycling, the challenge for many others remains the same - survival amidst the great dilemma of urban waste; profit for a few, versus the needs of the majority.

Colombia, Bolivia
Green cities
Circular Cities – Colombia, Bolivia 
The planned city-to-city cooperation aims to improve the integrated and inclusive solid waste management system of the cities of Santa Cruz de la Sierra in Bolivia and Cali in Colombia.