There are an estimated 3 million informal waste pickers in India alone. Every day, they look for recyclable materials to sell to collectors. Most work in landfills, where they are more likely to find recyclables but must endure difficult, often dangerous, conditions with little to no protective equipment.
These dangerous conditions can worsen the quality of life for waste pickers. For example, one such study found that informal waste pickers in Mexico had a life expectancy of just 39 years, just over half of the national average of 67 years. The inherent dangers are exacerbated by a lack of access to healthcare and unsanitary living conditions, and the global COVID-19 pandemic has further compounded these health risks.
Due to the social stigma against this essential work in many communities, waste pickers are often some of the most economically vulnerable communities. And yet, as the informal waste management sector exists on the margins of the law, they face a lack of regulations to protect their work.
Waste pickers are, however, a vital part of the waste ecosystem. In many developing countries, the informal sector is the only mechanism that collects recyclables from waste. Not only do waste pickers keep our cities clean and prevent plastic waste from leaking into our environment, they serve a crucial role in unlocking the value of our waste. As the bridge between our waste and recycling industries, waste pickers are indispensable in the journey toward a circular economy in developing countries.
Gemini Corporation (Gemcorp) recognised the importance of waste pickers and started a project in India to support their holistic wellbeing. Called Gemcorp Recycling, the initiative aims to shift the stigma and celebrate this vital profession by providing resources, healthcare, and legitimacy to these workers.
Gemcorp provides waste pickers, renamed as “reclaimers”, with recycling machinery to help scale their efforts, as well as safety and sanitation equipment. The initiative also provides free healthcare at locally-run community centres for reclaimers and their families, as well as educational resources and games for the children of reclaimers.
To formalise the contributions of reclaimers, Gemcorp is also helping apply for legal identification documents to help legitimise reclaimers in the eyes of the authorities and qualify them for governmental support and formalise their work.
The project is currently supporting 150 reclaimers and their families, with plans to expand this support to 2,000 reclaimers, eventually recycling over 100,000 tons of waste annually by 2024. They are looking to further expand this initiative to support the informal waste sector around the world.