A Call for a Socially Restorative Circular Economy: Waste Pickers in the Recycled Plastics Supply Chain

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Ahmad, Saffy Rose 

Abstract: The labour-intensive task of waste collection for recycling is critical to contemporary forms of corporate circularity. In low- and middle-income countries, waste pickers underpin the recycling loop of the circular economy. Where informality and working poverty are the norm, waste pickers typically receive little social protection, work in dangerous conditions, and earn low wages. Nevertheless, waste pickers’ work addresses multiscalar environmental problems from localised flooding of plastic-clogged waterways, to preventing the release of greenhouse gases when plastic is burnt. Here, we review recent academic and grey literature on waste picking, the social circular economy, and corporate circularity to understand the role and position of waste pickers in the contemporary circular economy. We explain how given the recent outcry against plastic waste, and subsequent corporate commitments to plastic recycling, there has been greater action on material flows than in support of the people who move these flows. Overall, the corporate response remains limited, with a general preference for recycling over redesign and only a fifth of packaging accounted for. Based on this review, we present two models. The first is a hierarchy of plastic recycling showing the foundational role of waste pickers in the recycled plastics supply chain. As plastics move up the hierarchy, their value increases and working conditions improve. We also propose a new model for a socially restorative circular economy which provides fair pay, safe working conditions, social protection, legal rights, voice, respect, services, and education. Some governments, co-operatives, non-governmental organisations, and businesses are already working towards this—and their work offers pathways towards a new standard of fair trade recycled materials. We argue that for true sustainability and the best version of circularity to be achieved, deeply ingrained social challenges must be resolved.


Funder: Unilever; doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.13039/100007190

Full Paper, Informal sector, Waste management, Working poverty, Decent work, Global South
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Circular Economy and Sustainability
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Springer International Publishing