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The informal waste economy: at the front lines of ocean plastic prevention

By August 20, 2020June 6th, 2023One Comment

There is an enormous potential for the informal waste economy in tackling ocean plastic pollution, yet how do we ensure that this underappreciated and vulnerable sector continues to receive the support it needs?

It’s a job that most people won’t dream of doing, but incredibly important, nonetheless. ‘Material collectors’, ‘waste pickers’, ‘catadores’ or ‘coastline bottle collectors’, these words describe individuals who earn their living by collecting and sorting waste. Discarded bits of paper, plastic bottles and glass are handpicked from coastlines, riverbanks and ditches which are then exchanged for cash. Up to 20 million people in developing countries work as waste pickers, in what is known as the ‘informal waste sector’, although exact numbers are hard to come by1.

Although much less common in the Global North, this economy thrives in developing countries lacking in formal waste infrastructures, where open dumping and incineration are common waste disposal practices. As plastic waste is expected to triple by 2040, is it time to recognize the role of this largely underappreciated sector in the battle against the ocean plastic pollution?

According to a recently published report ‘Breaking the Plastic Wave’, in 2016 alone, the informal waste sector managed to collect and prevent 27 million metrics tons of plastic waste from ending up in landfill or the ocean. This means that more than half of all the plastic material collected for recycling globally is carried out by the informal waste sector – approximately 59%. In countries such as Brazil, these figures are much higher, where it has been estimated that this informal economy is responsible for 90% of all recycling. Across 9 Southeast Asian cities, bottle collectors were responsible for 97% of PET plastic bottle recycling. 

The potential of the informal waste economy in helping prevent ocean plastic is thus enormous. This means that investing and developing these underfunded sectors in low- and middle-income countries in the Global South is needed. Investment management firms such as Circulate Capital, work with corporations and investors to advance the circular economy to prevent the flow of plastic into the world’s ocean. Identifying, incubating and investing in opportunities designed to divert waste from the environment into the recycling value chain is their core business. They created the world’s first investment fund dedicated to preventing ocean plastic: Circulate Capital Ocean Fund (CCOF) and work in South and Southeast Asia where most of the plastic enters the ocean. 

“In order to solve the ocean plastic crisis, we need to find ways for those on the front lines – waste pickers and SMEs in the recycling and waste management sector – to make money from plastic waste so it becomes a resource and not a scourge. Each of our investments must prevent plastic pollution by the ton as well as generate positive social and economic benefits for local communities, especially waste pickers who are critical, yet most vulnerable workers of the value chain.”  

Rob Kaplan, founder and CEO of Circulate Capital

While the link between the informal waste sector and increasing recycling for the benefit of the environment is clear, there is also a socioeconomic dimension to consider. While the circular economy is perhaps perceived as an ideology in developed countries, it is important to remember that for those working in the informal waste economy, reuse and recycling is simply a way of life. They are the real heroes of recycling and their means to support their families is under increasing pressure due to fluctuations in the market. Dropping oil prices causing companies to switch back to virgin plastic, or the public health implications of coronavirus have all created challenging circumstances for this already vulnerable sector. It is thus important for consumers to continue creating demand for recycled plastic through their purchasing behaviour. 

Looking ahead, what’s more pressing is that as countries develop economically, recycling rates typically see a decrease due to an increase in alternative, more generous means of income. It is thus important to consider how this sector can continue to develop in a way that both supports their right to economic prosperity and protect our shared ocean. As some countries leapt from no phone to iPhone, how do we propel these countries into a circular economy as an example to the rest of the world? 

1Information in this article was updated on April 22nd, 2021.

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