Despite their huge contribution to urban waste management, informal waste workers in Thailand do not receive the recognition they deserve.

It is estimated that the value of informal workers in waste management is approximately THB 500 million (compared to the Bangkok Municipality work valued at THB 437 million).

Yet we don’t know nearly enough about how informal workers collect waste, working conditions, or opportunities to collaborate with the formal urban waste management system. Informal waste workers go unrecognized in Thailand’s Roadmap on Plastic Waste Management 2018 – 2030 .

Understanding their work better is critical to building a more effective and fair circular waste system in Thailand.

SEI Asia has been working to better understand how informal waste collectors contribute to waste management and to rethink their relationships with households and local authorities.

These are the are five things we have learnt.

1. Multiple and overlapping actors in the informal waste system

The common preconception is that three groups make up the informal waste system in Thailand: waste collectors, aggregators, and recyclers.  Based on SEI’s field surveys in the city of Bangkok, Chonburi and Rayong, we have found at least ten actors across the waste flow, some with overlapping roles (see Figure 1).

Figure 1: Clarifying the overlapping informal and formal roles in the waste system.

The scavengers and collectors (no.1-3) collect community waste, which are discarded household items such as plastics, scrap metals, papers, and glasses bottles.

Some collectors in Bangkok, who are able to save cash in hand, go door-to-door in dense middle- to high-income residential areas to buy waste then sell it onwards to an aggregator. In contrast, ‘collectors’ in Chonburi and Rayong are mostly scavengers. They cannot afford to buy waste, so they circle around communities day and night, opening any waste bags they can find. It is a down-right hands-on process. Collectors told us most waste items are usually ‘contaminated’ with food, so it is necessary to spend a few hours per day cleaning the waste before selling it on to aggregators.

Understanding the difference between ‘buying waste’ and ‘scavenging waste’, helps reveal what drives the ‘collector’ to engage in waste collecting, and therefore the shortfalls in the social system. Most scavengers are elderly people trying to work and supplement their family income. Some of them said that “scavenging waste is the only thing left for us to make ends meet”. Clearly, waste management needs to link with societal challenges such as Thailand’s ageing population and the urban poor.

2. Geography shapes mobility and availability of waste

Population density is central to where and how much waste is available for collectors and scavengers to collect.

Bangkok is dense (5,629.96 person/km2) with a high concentration of central business districts in middle- to high-income household areas. In comparison, Chonburi and Rayong’s population is less dense at 356.49 person/km2 and 258.56 person/km2 respectively. The high volume of commercial and residential spaces in Bangkok featuring a concentrated mix of restaurants, street vendors, coffee shops, bars, schools, condominiums and townhouses provide an abundance of different kinds of waste for collectors.

In contrast, in Chonburi and Rayong, although they are triple the size of Bangkok, the residential areas are far more spread out along the stretches of the cities’ interprovincial motorways. This feature of secondary, industrial-based cities makes it harder for scavengers to access waste. It is also unsafe, as the motorcycles or bicycle-carts of scavengers are least suitable to travel along the main roads that are also used by heavy-duty trucks.

3. How plastics are actually being collected

Informal waste workers have a specific method to collect and sort plastic waste. Based entirely on physical and visual observation, workers categorize the plastic into six polymers (see Figure 2). The less color the polymer has (i.e., the more transparent), the higher the price because it can meet a variety of production needs.

Figure 2: How informal waste workers categorize plastic waste.

What makes this framing so practical is it precisely captures the actual recycling process in Thailand. It enables informal collectors, aggregators, recyclers, and plastic manufacturers to work across the production to cycle waste efficiently. A head of a recycling plant that processes about 4,000 tonnes of clear plastic (polyethylene terpthalate: PET) per month said: “Thailand has one of the most comprehensive recycling ecosystems in the world because of how well the informal and formal actors work together”.

Sorting plastic waste this way benefits all parties in the waste economy. Informal waste workers can accumulate more plastic and increase their earning. If plastic waste is segregated, informal workers have to deal less with food contamination. Consumers can earn extra income simply by segregating and selling the waste to the informal waste workers. Combined together, the municipality has to deal with less waste and hence, can lower its laborer workloads and costs.

4. Storage is a big issue in Bangkok

Storage space in Bangkok limits how collectors and aggregators collect and process waste. Waste shops in Bangkok are mostly family-run businesses using their own houses and yards as waste dumps to gather and sort through the waste.

Family-owned waste shop in Yannawa, Bangkok overflowing with waste materials

A family-owned waste shop in Yannawa, Bangkok overflowing with waste materials. Photo: Raja Asvanon / SEI Asia.

Storage space is directly linked to the waste worker’s ability to earn income because it determines how much space they can use to gather and sell waste. Aggregators we spoke to say their storage is always overflowing, and they often have to use the pavements as temporary sites. Often, when aggregators have no storage left, they have to sell the waste immediately.

5. Integrating the informal into planning

Integrating the informal sector into the waste management requires workers to become organized – for example through a representative group – to engage with the waste planning process.

Recognizing the contribution of informal waste workers will enable them to get the support they need to do their work. We simply cannot expect collectors and scavengers – especially the elderly with inadequate access to social security – to maintain a vital daily function that an entire city like Bangkok depends upon.

Representation through an organization will help renegotiate the role informal workers play in the urban waste management. One organization leading this change is the Saleng and Recycle Trader Association (SRTA). Originally formed to stop Thailand from importing overseas waste , the SRTA now has over 30,000 members comprising informal waste workers. SRTA is now working with the Bangkok administration to include informal workers in the urban waste management process.

Circular production and waste systems cannot be defined by material innovations nor manufacturing excellence alone.  Integrating the role of informal waste workers is instrumental to improving the waste management system.

Note: This piece is based on research by SEI Asia on the informal waste sector as part of a FORMAS-funded project and research for The Circulate Initiative, to promote appropriate plastic recycling infrastructures for an inclusive circular economy in Asia.