Dhaka’s Unseen Green: An Analysis of the Roles and Opportunities of Informal Waste Pickers

Waste pickers are the men, women, and children all over the world who rely on rubbish for their survival. Operating across dynamic and generally informal networks, waste pickers collect, transport, and separate our discarded materials. Waste pickers are recyclers, entrepreneurs, and a key component of solid waste management systems in many countries - they are also subject to widespread social discrimination and regulatory dismissal. As the informal economy expands and evolves under increasingly globalised environmental agendas, waste pickers warrant attention. Strategies and motivations for waste management vary, but must not overlook human needs and capabilities as a central component. To gain insight to the role of waste pickers, an eight week ethnographic research project was enacted in Dhaka, Bangladesh. Dhaka’s solid waste management is a precarious system of public and private partnerships, with waste pickers as the foundation, bridging a gap left by the government. Qualitative data was collected and waste picker’s narratives yielded themes of health, opportunity for livelihood, and social positioning. Although work conditions are hazardous, the waste picker’s perceptions of health and safety differ from those of academics and non-governmental organisations. An array of motivations for involvement in the profession were revealed, with many waster pickers citing the work as providing them the chance for a better livelihood. Discussions of social positioning were considered, as well as potential for moving away from limiting stigmas. These themes were evaluated in relation to human development and environmental needs. Waste handling reflects the way waste is culturally viewed and evaluated. Growing population and environmental demands stress Dhaka’s solid waste management. Within the informal waste sector, there is a great opportunity – and it is not to be wasted.

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