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The hidden heroes tackling the world’s rubbish problem

Find out about waste pickers and why their work is vital to reducing the impacts of rubbish on people living in poverty.

27 Mar 2023

Jonsoni Pita, a waste picker, collecting waste along a riverbank in Tanzania. Image: Daniel Msirikale/Tearfund

Jonsoni Pita, a waste picker, collecting waste along a riverbank in Tanzania. Image: Daniel Msirikale/Tearfund

What is a waste picker?

Waste pickers are informal workers who collect, sort and sell materials for recycling or reuse. It is estimated that more than 20 million people around the world earn an income in this way.

Through collecting materials such as plastic, glass, paper and electronic waste from households, streets and dumpsites, waste pickers’ contribution to material recovery is immense. In fact, about 60 per cent of all plastic recycled globally is collected by waste pickers. They are the backbone of the world’s recycling systems.

The work that waste pickers do also has a huge impact on protecting the environment, and improving public health and local economies. Because of their work, less rubbish is left dumped or burnt on roadsides or landfills, and less plastic waste makes its way into waterways or oceans. 

Less pollution is better for public health – as unmanaged waste increases the risk of heart disease, cancer and respiratory infection – resulting in the deaths of up to 1 million people each year. Plus, more rubbish being collected means more recycling, boosting green jobs. 

What challenges do waste pickers face?

Despite the crucial role waste pickers play in tackling the plastic pollution crisis, and their extensive experience and knowledge of waste collection and recycling, waste pickers’ work often goes unrecognised. Their human rights and livelihoods are not sufficiently protected by governments, or respected by businesses. 

Waste pickers often do not receive a living income and often endure poor working conditions. Many waste pickers face other human rights impacts, such as discrimination, harassment and exclusion from decision-making processes which affect their lives and livelihoods.

Kelvin Swai, a waste picker, standing by a pile of trash.

Kelvin Swai, a waste picker, standing by a pile of trash.

What is Tearfund doing? 

We are working with waste pickers to tackle this injustice. Last year, Tearfund convened the Coca-Cola Company, PepsiCo, Nestlé and Unilever to launch the Fair Circularity Initiative. Companies such as this that are responsible for a great deal of plastic pollution rely on waste pickers to help them recycle the waste they produce.

At the heart of the Fair Circularity Initiative are the Fair Circularity Principles – designed to lead to waste pickers’ human rights being respected by businesses. Their aim is to improve incomes and working conditions, and ensure that waste pickers are included in decision-making processes which affect them. 

Through our Rubbish Campaign, Tearfund’s partners and campaigners are also calling on governments to ensure that the human rights of waste pickers are protected. Governments are currently negotiating a global, legally-binding treaty to end plastic pollution. 

This treaty is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to help people living in poverty by reducing global plastics production, increasing access to waste collection and recycling, and delivering a just transition for waste pickers. This means ending plastic pollution in a way that is as fair and inclusive as possible, through creating decent work opportunities and leaving no one behind. 

Madi Koena, a waste picker from South Africa and delegate to the treaty negotiations on behalf of the International Alliance of Waste Pickers, highlights how critical this opportunity is:

‘It’s vitally important that waste pickers are part of the treaty policymaking process and that our voices are heard. 

‘As a mother and grandmother I began waste picking and selling recyclables to ensure we had meals on our table [...] A strong treaty must provide and guarantee better and decent work, social protection, more training opportunities and greater job security for workers.’

We want the treaty to fully address the impacts of plastic pollution and make sure that justice is at the heart of the agreement. Plastic pollution isn’t just an environmental problem – it’s affecting millions of human beings too.

To find out more about waste pickers and the crucial role they play, visit

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