Recycling for Life — and a Living

An estimated four million people make their living from informal recycling in Latin America and the Caribbean. Working in hazardous and unsanitary conditions, most of these recyclers are socially and economically marginalized. Their livelihood is in what others discard. However, they also make an important environmental contribution in a sector that generally lacks the means to undertake comprehensive solid waste management.

Around 30 per cent of the total waste recyclers in Peru are women, many of whom must balance their role in the domestic sphere with wage labour. The population of informal recyclers is one of the most vulnerable and excluded collectives given the generalized lack of capacities, stigma, unhealthy work environment and lack of recognition and support.

However, in the Peruvian city of Arequipa, three-quarters of both formal and informal recyclers are women. UN Environment and UNDP through the Poverty-Environment Initiative (PEI) and support from UNV, are helping transform the relationship between waste collectors, communities and the environment with a strong gender focus in the particular setting of the city of Arequipa. 

Alicia Cruz, a smiling lady of 48 years, wakes at five in the morning to begin her day. She prepares a chicken and rice dish for herself and her colleagues, with whom the dish is always popular, for the day ahead. She fills the lunchboxes for herself and workmates but leaves most for her children for when they return from school.

She dons her impeccable blue uniform, black boots, gloves and sunhat and leaves for work. Following around an hour’s travel, Alicia arrives in a quiet residential area of the Peruvian city of Arequipa and begins work.

At the first house, a gentle housewife hands a bag full of green plastic bottles to Alicia, who in return gives an empty bag which she will collect when filled the following week. The exchange is brief but friendly. Each bag collected from the houses Alicia visits is placed by the fence of a nearby park along with those left by the other collectors. From there, they are collected by truck, taken to a collection centre and weighed. This morning Alicia’s haul included two big bags of bottles, two bags of cans, a bag of newspapers and a bag of various plastic materials, an acceptable day’s work. She will visit around forty houses on each Wednesday of every week.

This apparent unremarkable routine has changed the lives of women that make up the Recycle Life Association.

In Peru, PEI supports the Ministry of the Environment (MINAM) in the generation of a sustainable management model that includes a gender perspective in the solid waste management sector. The model seeks to incorporate informal collectors, one of the country's most stigmatized and vulnerable occupations, into the formal system through source separation and recycling programmes.

The initiative forms part of the Peruvian authority’s "Integrated Solid Waste Management for Sustainable Development and Inclusion" programme, which aims to change the relationship of a community with its habitat and livelihoods.

In total, the project has been actively working with 105 women of 10 different associations in Arequipa. Through this mutually beneficial arrangement, residents sort their garbage and have it collected from their door, while women like Alicia no longer have to travel to the informal dumps on the outskirts of the city to sort through waste in hazardous and unsanitary conditions.

With the support of PEI, The Ministry of Environment and the Municipality of Arequipa, in cooperation with the Ministry of Development and Social Inclusion and the Ministry Women and Vulnerable Populations have been working to achieve the dual goal of improving the livelihood and living conditions of recyclers, and maximizing the environmental benefits of their activity.

Such initiatives represent a triple win for waste collectors, household residents and the environment while helping to combat poverty and promote equality.

For more stories on Gender and the Environment, see Gender Equality and the Environment: A Guide to UN Environment's Work (2016).