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Towards inclusive urban waste systems: integrating informal waste workers for a circular economy

Without the informal economy, there would be no waste recycling in most Asian cities. In many Asian countries, waste management systems are under-developed, with the informal economy dominating the processes of waste collection, sorting and recycling.

Active project



This project aims to promote the achievement of a circular economy in waste management, and identify what changes are needed to ensure that urban informal waste workers are included in the transition to sustainable waste management.

The project will focus on the household solid waste sector in urban Thailand, including the regulatory, technical, economic, and physical environment and behavioural elements, and will especially consider plastic waste and opportunities to reduce its generation as well as improve its rates of recycling. The project outcomes will identify practical and policy changes that can be made to ensure an inclusive circular economy that helps Asian cities to achieve SDGs 8, 12 and 11.


This project will investigate the current challenges to achieving more large-scale recycling practices at the household level in Thai cities, and seek to identify opportunities for ensuring that informal waste workers can benefit from innovations in waste management, to achieve both a) circularity in the management of waste products to maximise household recycling rates, and b) more sustainable, inclusive, and safe working conditions for informal waste workers. This will lead us to a re- conceptualisation of the urban solid waste management sector in which informal workers are integrated as partners, facilitating the achievement of just, inclusive cities alongside sustainable consumption practices. In order to achieve this, our overarching research question is:

 How can we ensure a sustainable transition for informal waste workers to become key waste management actors in a circular economy? 

The answer will be examined through the following four sub-questions:

  1. How does urban household consumption and behaviour influence patterns of solid waste generation?
  2. How do informal waste workers currently operate as collectors of recyclable household waste?
  3. What are the current barriers to a transition towards a more inclusive solid waste management sector in which informal waste workers are recognized and integrated as key waste actors in the sector?
  4. What policy, technical and behavioural changes are required to achieving the transition outlined above?
Consumption of single-use plastics such as surgical masks and disposable cups has shot up since the advent of Covid-19

Most waste management systems in Asian cities are under-developed, with the informal economy dominating the processes of waste collection, sorting and recycling. (Photo: Diane Archer)


We will be applying a mixed-methods approach to gather information on the dispersed waste pickers to understand the circuit of recyclable waste in the city (Harris-White, 2019), to ensure that the knowledge generated can be used to inform both policy and practice and is relevant to the involved stakeholder groups. The methods will include:

  • Survey questionnaires for local households, waste collectors, and junk shops.
  • Mobile methods (Büscher and Urry 2009) when gathering data from the informal waste workers themselves, to minimize the time they are kept away from their work. This will be used to understand the social organization of movement to understand the problems faced by informal waste pickers.
  • Participatory mapping processes with waste workers will be combined with the above mobile methods, to understand the workers’ daily routes and coverage and why these routes are chosen, including how recycling nodes or other key sites such as dump sites are encompassed, and how issues such as storage of materials are addressed.
  • Participatory workshops with both a mix of stakeholders and single stakeholder groups, to collectively identify barriers to circularity and vision a transition to a sustainable, inclusive future in the solid waste sector.
  • Key informant interviews will supplement the above methods. These will include key actors such as municipal officials, civil society organisations supporting informal waste workers on working conditions, and those working with households on waste reduction.
  • A geographic scoping exercise at the district level will be the starting point, to identify suitable neighbourhoods for our study, for example those with a junk shop that serves as a ‘node’ for informal waste workers to congregate to.

Key actors

  1. informal waste workers operating in Thai cities,
  2. local communities generating household waste, including recyclable waste,
  3. middlemen or junk shop traders buying recyclable waste materials for processing,
  4. municipal and national government officials involved in waste management implementation and regulation,
  5. labour organisations or other civil society organisations and NGOs engaging with informal workers.



Diane Archer

Senior Research Fellow

SEI Asia

Topics and subtopics
Economy : Sustainable lifestyles
Related centres
SEI Asia

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