Waste pickers bearing brunt of extreme weather events

Source(s): Women in Informal Employment: Globalizing and Organizing (WIEGO) Limited
A waste picker walking on the street in Brazil
Luis War/Shutterstock

Brazilian study shows why waste pickers are essential to climate adaptation planning.

More than 90% of waste pickers surveyed across Brazil have experienced climate change-related extreme weather events in the last year, with many reporting negative impacts on their health, earnings and ability to work, a new study shows. 

The research, titled Climate-Change Impacts and Adaptation Strategies: Waste Pickers’ Experiences from Brazil, asked waste pickers how severe weather events had impacted them, and the strategies they used to cope and adapt. 

It found 91% of waste pickers surveyed experienced at least one climate-change-related event in the past year, with 85% experiencing abnormal heat or heat waves, and 39% exposed to flash flooding. Close to 100 workers based in Manaus, Amazonas; Salvador, Bahia; and Belo Horizonte, Minas Gerais were interviewed for the study.

Sonia Dias, the lead researcher, says with climate change accelerating faster than predicted, and waste pickers’ health and earnings disproportionately impacted by extreme weather conditions, understanding the impact of climate change on this workforce - and other workers in informal employment - is vital. 

“Cities are major carbon emitters, and they’re particularly badly hit by climate hazards. Things like heat waves, flooding and drought impact essential services like water supply, sanitation, transportation and energy provision,” she says.

“The waste pickers we interviewed are at the front line, facing dehydration, heat stroke, fatigue, and exposure to dangerous pathogens - so their perspectives are absolutely essential to creating effective climate-change adaptation plans.”

Dias says autonomous waste pickers (who work on their own) report more severe impacts than waste pickers who are part of cooperatives and associations.

“The research shows a range of coping and adaptation strategies. Individual waste pickers tended to try to keep working through the climate-change event, with limited impact on the city’s poor services and deteriorating infrastructure. Collective responses were more preventive, with workers coordinating processes for how to store waste and materials,” said Dias.

Dias says building waste pickers’ resilience to climate change builds resilience for the whole city, so municipalities should place waste pickers at the centre of future policies.

“Local governments need to invest in climate-sensitive workplace infrastructure to address heat waves and floods as a matter of urgency,” she says.

“Things like extreme weather monitoring, early warning systems and training for emergency response procedures are essential for informal workers to adapt to working through climate-related events.”

Dias says local governments already have a strong legal imperative to support waste pickers - the National Solid Waste Management Policy which guarantees their role in waste management systems. Going forward, city officials can translate this recognition into developing climate change adaptation policies and plans that centre waste pickers’ perspectives and needs. 

Waste pickers - who collect, sort, recycle and sell recyclable materials - play a crucial role in reducing pollution and carbon emissions. They are responsible for gathering close to 60% of all plastic material that is recycled worldwide. In Brazil, over a quarter of a million people collect and sell recyclables for a living — a number that has generally increased in the last decade or so.

View the study

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