Chile: Waste Pickers Rummage for Legal Recognition

Environmentalist Bharati Chaturvedi flew for 40 hours from her home Delhi, India, to dig deeper into a dirty issue: trash. As politicians in Chile are now sorting through what to do about recycling on a national level, Chaturvedi encourages that those who collect trash professionally, or “waste pickers,” be included in the solution.

Chaturvedi endured that double red-eye to share her wealth of knowledge about pickers in India and also to learn from the budding Chilean recycling system. Representatives from Kenya, India, Colombia, Argentina and Brazil, alongside Chaturvedi, will come together for a forum [es] in Santiago on August 16 to discuss waste pickers with a special focus on women.

Picking Cart in Santiago, Photo By: Katie Manning

Picking Cart in Santiago, Photo By: Katie Manning

Chaturvedi, founder and director of the Chintan Environmental Research and Action Group, advocates for environmentally friendly ways to deal with increasing urbanization in India. Chaturvedi also prioritizes the human aspect of going green in Indian cities with overflowing slums.

Working to organize as many as 1.5 million waste pickers in India requires a certain get-up-and-go. As she sat down for Wednesday morning's post-flight meeting, she politely declines a cup of coffee as she gets down to business.

She said, “Recycling (in India) is not green because waste pickers… work in really bad conditions. If they are not working in good conditions, we shouldn’t be proud about it,” and added, “A lot of people would say it’s fashionable to be eco-friendly, but they won’t go out of their way.”

Thanks to highly organized groups, like the  National Movement of Recyclers in Chile [es], trendy Chileans can go green without lifting a finger. Chile piles up more than 15 million tons of trash, according to a 2010 report. The Recyclers help by scavenging for items to bring to city centers.

For busy nine to fivers, trekking to a recycling center doesn’t always top the to-do list. Emily, an American in Chile, who publishes Don’t Call Me Gringa, blogged:

This weekend we had probably the most difficult recycling experience of our lives. Recycling in Santiago already isn’t particularly easy… There is still a pilgrimage involved – none of this home pick-up stuff I’m used to in the US.

But the Recyclers are eager to take out the trash, and some end up earning twice the minimum wage in Chile doing it according to the Recycler’s president, Exequiel Estay.

Bins in Santiago are ripe for picking on the evening shift.

Bins in Santiago are ripe for picking on the evening shift. Image by Katie Manning

The tech-savvy Recyclers maintain a blog, a Facebook page, a Twitter account and a Youtube channel (all in Spanish) to organize their support network. They’ve expanded globally by linking up with international organizations of pickers. According to, 50 million people worldwide pick for their livelihood.

The Recyclers want to ensure that their jobs aren’t trashed when new recycling laws take effect.

One of the Recycler’s followers, Santiago A. (@racionalisimo), tweeted:

Es necesario apoyar a las cooperativas de recicladores. Hacen un gran aporte a la sociedad y se trata de formalizar un poco más su trabajo.

It's necessary to support the recycler’s effort. They make a great contribution to society, and formalizing their effort requires only a little more work.

There is a foundation to their fear. In Colombia, legislation originally forbade recyclers from picking up trash.

Sobre politicas, a political blog in Colombia, reads:

In it [the law] there are some paragraphs which prohibits:

1. Open the bags of garbage in inappropriate places like the street.
2. Carrying trash in inappropriate vehicles.

In other words, people with low income “do not recycle” is the motto of this law and rot (do not misunderstand the word) in the street with nothing to eat.

This law clearly supports the management of garbage by people who have money and prevents people who really need this by necessity to do so.

Colombia’s Constitutional Court changed the law. It now redefines pickers as “entrepreneurs.”

In  many countries around the world, pickers challenge a negative stereotype. Chaturvedi explains that impoverished pickers in India live in conditions little better than a garbage dump, which contributes to a certain animosity.

“A lot of people say, ‘Yuck. You touched the trash and now you’re going to touch my plates? It’s awful. I’m going to get a disease,’” she said.

Considering the onslaught of marchers descending upon the streets of Santiago, “Chile should know from it’s currently circumstances how important it is to be inclusive to the people and listen to them,” she added.

As different as they may seem India and Chile share “a place to make policies that are particularly inclusive of the poor.”

Chaturvedi explains the role of female pickers in India. Photo By: Katie Manning

These laws benefit both businesses and pickers according to Chaturvedi because the “informal sector is much more efficient than the formal sector” at dealing with waste.

So far, laws about recycling are only in the discussion phase, but the Recyclers seek to be in the middle of the action during the decision making process.

“We have to look at citizenship that looks at citizens,” said Chaturvedi, “It’s not a rich versus poor thing. It’s about how do we want to live in a city with basic standards.”

Katie Manning reports for, which publishes 15 citizen journalism news sites across the provinces of Chile.


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