Inclusive recycling: green jobs to support a circular economy in sustainable cities

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Applied Institute for Research in Economics

Dr Jacqueline Rutkowski is a Marie Curie Research Fellow in the Business School. Her research is on the Green and Circular economies, focusing on the sustainability of social and solidarity economy enterprises and on sustainable waste management and recycling.

Large piles of domestic waste

Waste has become a worldwide environmental problem of major proportions and consequences.

As a result of a linear economic model based on infinite growth, there were 2.01 billion tonnes of solid waste generation in 2016. Annual waste generation is expected to increase by 70% by 2050. As a consequence, it is expected that by 2050, oceans will have more waste than fish. This will cause significant ecological and social impacts as well as substantial economic losses in several sectors.

Waste is also considered a major element of soil and groundwater pollution and an important source of greenhouse gases (GHG), attributing to about 5% of global emissions. Implementing solid waste management in cities around the world can be considered key to delivering the United Nation’s Sustainable Development goals.

The main strategies to implement integrated and sustainable solid waste management (ISWM) around the world are to reduce the generation of waste and divert as much waste as possible from landfilling and incineration by reusing and recycling more. These are also the main principles of the European Directives for Waste Management and Packaging, and the Circular Economy.

In developing countries, where waste management is hardly implemented, the recycling of packaging and other products disposed by consumers is being carried out by waste pickers. Waste pickers have forged a new “technology” for the management and recycling of municipal waste from their practical knowledge of collecting and sorting recyclable waste within the Social and Solidarity Economy framework.

Several studies have shown that their action increases the amount of waste recovered and reduces the operational costs of waste management, contributing to ISWM in these countries.

Waste pickers represent about 1% of the world's population who are part of a group of socially excluded people. They have been left to their own devices by governments that are no longer willing to redistribute resources or rights from the rich and empowered to those ‘left behind’. Waste pickers turn waste into income and jobs and create livelihoods that result in poverty alleviation for a few million people, while also reducing their social and economic exclusion.

This innovative solution for waste and recycling seems well-suited to the Circular Economy requirements, one of which is achieving higher recycling targets for different materials. It is also a good example for the Green Economy, which not only looks for environmental solutions, but for new jobs for people living in vulnerable situations.

Finding out how these informal operators should be invited to work with, not against, Integrated Waste Management could help make cities more sustainable and inclusive, especially in developing countries. Having been awarded a Horizon 2020 Marie SkÅ‚odowska-Curie fellowship, my research - “The Role of the Informal Recycling Sector on Closing the Loops to Sustainable Cities” – looks to find a solution to this problem.

The research’s focus is on the producer's extended responsibility for the packaging (Extended Producer Responsibility - EPR). Packaging accounts for 30 to 50% of urban waste and EPR has been a policy used in many countries to address this problem.

EPR is environmental policy, based on “the polluter pays” principle. This aims to increase waste diversion and recycling of targeted materials - in this case, packaging. It should also lead companies to develop activities and innovation in Design for the Environment.

This policy is implemented under different economic instruments and operating strategies around the world, but for packaging it can be summarised by producers being responsible for collecting or “tacking back” packaging from waste and treating it for recycling. To support these activities, each producer pays Advanced Disposal Fees for the amount of packaging they place on the market.

My research investigates the Brazilian experience in packaging EPR, which is being deployed in an inclusive way, as detailed below. The European experience for EPR packaging is used as benchmark. 

In Europe, recyclable waste is collected by local authorities or by private companies hired by them. Recycling services - sorting, classifying, baling - are usually under the responsibility of different private companies. These organisations have the operational costs of these services financially supported, either fully or partially, by packaging producers.

In Brazil, packaging producers have supported waste picker cooperatives to improve their collection and sorting capacity. Waste pickers are organized into cooperatives and collect household packaging, preparing the different recyclables in their cooperative's sheds for recycling, acting as the link between the waste management services chain and the recycling value chain. In this model, they improve their working conditions; they do not need to work in unhealthy conditions, in dumps or on the streets as before, and can share activities and responsibilities with other waste pickers. Organized into cooperatives, they can market recyclables materials that they collect and process better than they could as individuals, reducing the transaction costs of their activities. They also feel empowered by being involved in both chains.

My research shows that different types of plastics, paper and metals, regardless of their market value, are being diverted for recycling in the inclusive scheme. In Europe, where the system is market-driven, only the most valuable plastics and papers are recycled due to screening costs and other technological constraints.

In the inclusive model, a wider range of packaging is being effectively recycled due to waste pickers’ modus operandi, which is not based just on the value and cost-effectiveness analysis that organizes the selective collection and processing of recyclable materials in Europe. This is very important for the Circular Economy goals and for the recycling system, contributing to the improvement of the local recycling market.

The system also provides mutual learning and support for both parties: producers can better understand the constraints of the recycling market because waste pickers are experts in this by clearly pointing out which materials cannot be recycled due to market constraints. This information helps producers improve Design for Environment actions, such as those seen with Danone from their experience in Brazil.    

Waste pickers have learnt more about, and may be closer to, the recycling industry, avoiding intermediaries. Organised nationally in cooperatives and networks, Brazilian waste pickers are able to sell their labour-power in better conditions than those observed in other countries, transforming their position in the informal recycling sector.

This kind of learning and networking between different economic groups is a very interesting innovation in building new approaches to Circular and Green economies.

In the next step, I will be conducting a quantitative analysis in the database of cooperatives, to further understand the results of the system, considering the economic, social and environmental aspects.

The research, developed in collaboration with Professor Gary Dymski, will continue through to July 2020 and is intended to provide solutions to recent environmental concerns and international plastic waste prevention agreements. It will also help add academic weight to promote the dissemination of the inclusive packaging EPR model to improve waste management and recycling in cities worldwide.

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