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Helping Waste Pickers Earn A Better Living While They Keep City Streets Clean

Recyling is done by hand in many poor countries. Shouldn’t the people who sort get a fair price for their labor?

Helping Waste Pickers Earn A Better Living While They Keep City Streets Clean
[Photos: somsak suwanput via Shutterstock]

In countries without formal trash collection services, waste pickers often take up the slack when public services fall down. Hundreds of thousands of independent “pickers” make some kind of living sorting the garbage, looking for plastic, and other salvageable material.

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These workers provide a great public good by moving pollution off the streets and keeping it out of waterways. But, according to Canadian entrepreneur Andrew Almack, they could do an even more important job if they were better compensated. His idea: give waste pickers better market information, so they can win higher prices for what they gather.

“The problem is they negotiate at the back of the truck and, most of the time, the middleman has all the negotiating power,” Almack says. “There’s also a lack of trust. The middlemen accuse the pickers of contaminating the plastic, and those at the base of the supply chain think the middlemen are taking the biggest cut for themselves.”

Plastics for Change, the company Almack started, is building a mobile platform that sends out regular pricing information (like other platforms do for farmers) and allows pickers to rate middlemen for their trustworthiness. That way, one, pickers can be prepared when they negotiate, and two, they can encourage middlemen to act fairly. Almack compares the second feature to customer rating systems on eBay or Uber.

“We’re not necessarily reinventing the flow of plastic. We’re just re-incentivizing the supply chain and putting in accountability,” he says.

Plastics for Change is currently on Indiegogo raising money to build out partnerships in India. It has one partnership with a recycling group in Coimbatore, which has been trialling its software. Almack hopes to make money by charging fees to companies that want to use recycled plastics. “We’re providing the marketing content for the brands in exchange for purchasing the plastic through this platform,” he says.

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Of course, the plastic waste problem in developing countries is enormous. One analysis from earlier this year found that coastal countries alone generated 275 million metric tons of plastic waste in 2010 and that up to 12.7 million tons entered the ocean. Mostly that was in China and poorer countries, like the Philippines and Indonesia.

“We have about one decade to take massive action to prevent plastic from entering the ocean, or the entire marine ecosystem could collapse,” Almack says. “But, at the same time, there is a lot of opportunity to use this [plastic] resource to address social issues in these communities.”

About the author

Ben Schiller is a New York staff writer for Fast Company. Previously, he edited a European management magazine and was a reporter in San Francisco, Prague, and Brussels.

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