Waste and recycling: health concerns herald technology change


January 4th, 2016

Waste recyclers in Lima, the capital of Peru, have overcome tremendous adversities to function as a recognised and legitimate sector.

When they had started to pick waste around the city, they were branded ‘nut cases’ or drug addicts and were sometimes chased away by the police when foraging for recyclables. This presented a social challenge since they became a marginalized group.

After unionizing and pursuing their labour rights, the Peruvian government passed the ‘Law of the Recycler’ in 2009- the first of its kind in the world.

Their labour unions, known as associations, provide them with representation and the ability to negotiate better prices as a group. The recycling sector has boomed ever since.

Although their jobs help make the earth greener, the same cannot be said for their own health, as the waste picking process presents many health risks.

Technology change

recycling tricycleMany of the recyclers started to collect waste with sacks, wheelbarrows, or industrial trolleys, mostly without protective uniforms, hygiene masks, or rubber gloves. The handling of unclean waste left them exposed to germs and the stress of transporting the collected waste across long distances caused constant backache. One of our interview respondents, Roberto, recounts how he broke his spine and switched from a wheelbarrow to a tricycle, and then to a moto-taxi. Like Roberto, many recyclers have switched to more automated, locally produced, transport technologies to curb these potential health risks. Other technologies that are changing or disappearing from use include transport scooters, pedal bicycles and pedal tricycles.

mototaxi These health issues have created a market for newer technologies, enabling changes to technology they use. New and emerging technologies include auto-tricycles, known as ‘tricimotos’ and motor taxis. This is accompanied by an increase in the use of protective wear such as gloves, uniforms, rubber boots and hygiene masks.

The fundamental shift from manual to automated technologies enables them to be more productive, collecting more waste in lesser amount time and ultimately, higher incomes, or increased leisure time.

Collection centres

Although many recyclers have been able to reduce excess physical effort by switching to more automated means of waste transportation, they still face a major challenge- the lack of a central waste collection centre.

Currently, most of the waste they collect are sorted in their homes before being sold. This presents huge health risks, since they are constantly surrounded by waste acquired from different parts of the city. Good hygiene is difficult to maintain in such circumstances.

waste for recyclingThis also causes problems with some of the recyclers’ relations with neighbours in their local communities. In an interview with Luzuela, a recycler in the Lima district of Los Olivos, she laments on how she has constant problems with her neighbours because she constantly brings home large amounts of waste to their shared communal space.

Evidently, many of Lima’s informal recyclers stress the need for a central collection centre; so they can all sort their waste there, rather than in residential areas.

The recyclers spend a substantial part of their income on basic expenses such as food, rent, childcare, education and other living expenses. The balance left is put in savings for upgrading their technologies. Since these informal recyclers earn so little, they barely have enough left to contribute towards a central collection centre.

However, there are prospects for the development for the sector as the Peruvian government, in 2013, committed to the promotion and increase recycling practices within the city. The leaders of their associations intend to form an enterprise to capitalize on this opportunity, which could potentially become a lucrative business.

The once looked-down upon sector of recycling in Lima is now recognised as a pivotal part of environmental efforts the city is increasingly making.

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