They are in many places in Bangkok and yet one often does not really see them.
Bangkok’s waste pickers or salengs are invisible to most city dwellers who go about their daily lives without giving them a passing glance. They usually roam the streets, almost all of them older men and women, carrying an assortment of plastic bags filled with trash.
People may not realize they exist, but waste pickers provide a valuable yet thankless service day and night to drive the recycling economy for Thailand, especially for the country’s capital, which has always struggled with its waste management systems.
Bangkok grapples with approximately 10 000 metric tons of waste per day produced by its population of over 12 million people. This is part of the nearly 27 million tons produced across the country every year.
Of the approximately 4.85 million tons of solid waste produced every year, only around 930 000 tons or 19% is segregated and recycled.
While Thailand’s local administration takes care of waste management in decentralized systems of landfills, composting and incineration, the recycling of waste is mainly driven by informal waste collectors.
Informal waste collectors rummage through the daily trash from houses, buildings, condominiums, street eateries and municipal garbage bins looking for bottles, cans, paper and cardboard, metal scraps and plastic, sometimes even offering to buy recyclables from households.
They sell recyclable wastes to small or medium waste dealers around Bangkok who then sell it on to either larger waste dealers or recycling plants. Plastic waste is processed and sold as recycled plastic pellets and flakes to plastic manufacturers for around THB 27 (US$0.80) per kg.
In SEI Asia’s work exploring urban waste management, researcher Charrlotte Adelina found that Bangkok’s waste pickers save the local administration considerable amounts of money, as well as reduce greenhouse gas emissions from landfills by recycling.
Lives of poverty and precariousness
Despite the clear contribution to circular economy, there is no clear information on the informal recycling sector in Thailand.
In one of the “walking interviews” with informal waste workers, SEI’s research team found that waste pickers live an extremely hazardous existence on the margins of the city.
“We found out that the salengs supplement the municipal waste collection system by independently rummaging for waste in streets, landfills and public places,” said Adelina. “But all this work is done in the complete absence of any safety equipment or protective gear, their health exposed to dangerous occupational hazards such as contaminated waste.”
Moreover, since they sell their waste individually to middlemen, the waste pickers have a weak bargaining position and often may not get good prices for the recyclables.
Interviews revealed that most waste pickers did not want to do this job but often faced no choice. Most waste pickers are single women with children, the widowed, elderly, ex-prisoners or those who cannot find other jobs, especially after Covid-19. Many who lost their supplementary jobs due to the pandemic have now turned to waste picking.
Waste pickers live in terrible conditions of poverty, often staying in small shacks around canals without clean water and electricity. On some days, they may go without food to feed themselves or their children even as they work around nine hours a day from early morning to late evening without breaks, including working on weekends. Most are also trying to pay off loans or utility bills. In Bangkok, one often also sees little children accompany their mothers to collect waste since there is no place safe to leave their kids alone.
Adelina said that on average, people with waste picking as the main occupation earn around THB 8000 ($236) per month. This would mean a daily income of around THB 269 ($8) per day, lower than the minimum wage in Bangkok of THB 331 ($10) per day.
The stigma around waste picking makes the occupation even more grim. Some waste pickers do not feel comfortable to walk and collect waste around large buildings since more people will look at them. Security guards around gated housing communities will sometimes warn them to not come around their localities. Thailand has made little progress in waste segregation, making it hazardous for waste pickers as they use their hands to sort through mixed garbage.
Inclusivity in the circular economy
The circular economy does not explore these critical questions of labour conditions and the precarious existence of those who add value to the discards and wastes.
Bangkok’s waste pickers are not registered with the government, operating as informal workers. They cannot acquire social welfare or labor protection as with other registered occupations.1 The continuing pandemic has added to the health challenges faced by the waste pickers.
Thailand’s Plastic Waste Management Road Map 2018–2030 includes an ambitious plan for Thailand to achieve 100% of recycling of plastic by 2027.
Adelina says the targets will be difficult to achieve without the inclusion of the informal sector as key facilitators of recycling.
“Waste pickers may not carry out their work in pursuit of a ‘circular economy’, but as a means of living,” she explained. “Yet their role is invaluable since they are knowledgeable of local waste flows and aware of their role in the public health and environment, and contribute to making the city clean and liveable.”
This piece is based on a presentation by SEI’s Charrlotte Adelina titled “Towards inclusive urban waste systems: integrating informal waste workers for a circular economy” at a webinar organized by SEI and Chulalongkorn University Social Research Institute (CUSRI) on 30 November 2021. The webinar “Inclusive cities for informal waste workers” is one of a series on urban governance through the perspectives of “small people” organized by CUSRI ahead of the Bangkok governor elections in 2022.
- ↑ One innovative measure to support waste pickers is the website I Got Garbage in India that aims to make waste picking a sustainable business by allowing workers an efficient system to increase profits. For example, it provides workers with budget phones to help plan and find the most efficient routes. There is even a database of buyers so waste pickers know where to find people who want to purchase recyclables.