There are an estimated 30 million waste pickers globally, trying to make a living in very harsh conditions, ultimately providing an important waste management service for very little in return. How can their work be more fairly valued so that it can continue to bring both environmental and social benefits to all? This social enterprise has been working it out.
Over eight million tonnes of plastic are estimated to enter our oceans every year, blighting our seas and shorelines, choking birds and fish, as well as reaching right back to us through the fish we eat, and contributing to phenomena such as as the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. Researchers believe that between 4.8 and 12.7 million metric tonnes of plastic waste that was generated on land in 2010 made its way into our oceans.
Poor or non-existent recycling facilities, low civic engagement in the issue, and a pervasive 'single-use' packaging culture are all to blame. In developing countries waste management infrastructure can be rare or non-existent. Here some of the poorest in society turn to waste picking in an attempt to make a living, while also providing an important environmental service to all – they spend their days trawling through mountains of garbage, searching for plastics that can be sold on to middle men - who look to buy the plastic for as little as possible and then mark it up and sell it on - for recycling. They often wear little or no protection while dealing with hazardous materials, therefore putting their health and their lives at risk every day for very little return.
Plastics for Change is a social enterprise born in 2012 to support waste pickers by offering them fairer returns for their collected plastics. Founded by Canadian changemaker Andrew Almack (who previously worked with the Plastic Bank), Plastics for Change seeks to make waste picking fair, enable more people to make a decent living out of it and to help diminish the amount of plastic clogging up our seas and natural habitats.
The organisation makes use of the proliferation of mobile technology, setting up what it calls an 'open-book trading system' that functions as a type of virtual or mobile marketplace. Here waste pickers can use their phone to gain access to vital market information that helps them negotiate the best price for their plastic as well as select from a variety of buyers. The aim here is to put a little more bargaining power in the waste pickers' corner and give them a good shot at a sustainable livelihood. By ensuring that waste pickers are properly rewarded for their essential work, the amount of discarded plastic floating around our environments is also reduced.
Currently only nine percent of all plastic produced globally is being recycled. The organisation is looking to turn the plastic life-cycle into a closed loop, actively working with companies to encourage them to stop using virgin plastic and replace it with ethically-recycled plastic in their products. The key to Plastics for Change's system is ensuring transparency and fairness across the supply chain; waste pickers use the mobile platform to negotiate a fair price for their plastic waste, the middle men then sell the plastic on to companies who then recycle it and use it anew. Companies can then differentiate themselves from their competitors and detail to consumers exactly how they sourced the plastic and where it has come from.
Plastics for Change is currently being piloted in India, and plans to expand to South East Asia and Africa. See how you can support them here, and check out their video below: