Waste management is a pressing environmental policy concern for Thailand, as it is one of the five countries responsible for the majority of plastic leakages into the world’s oceans (Ocean Conservancy, 2017). Waste collection and segregation are crucial elements of proper waste management, as they ensure a steady flow of waste for recycling and reuse.
However, only 10,130 tonnes were collected out of the 11,534 tonnes of solid waste generated per day in Bangkok in 2016 (Johnson and Trang, 2019) and only 8% of the population is reported to segregate their waste (Jungrungrueng, 2014). In such a scenario, it is found that the informal waste economy plays a significant role in waste management, and subsidizes municipal waste collection at an estimated cost of 500 million THB or $15.8 million per year (Johnson and Trang, 2019).
Informal waste collectors sort valuable plastic wastes from houses, streets and other public spaces, and landfills and sell them to small and medium-sized waste dealers or junk shops. Junk shops then aggregate and sell the plastics sorted by grade and type to recycling companies. Informal workers may also be employed at recycling plants, landfills or transfer stations that sort highly valued wastes, such as plastic bottles and plastic food containers from municipal waste streams. As such, they have strong links to the ‘formal’ economy.
However, in this report, we are primarily concerned with those who work outside of the municipal waste management system as they play a key role in labour, waste and the circular economy in waste collection and segregation in Bangkok, like in many cities of the Global South (Kaza et al., 2018). Yet, as they belong to some of the most vulnerable and poor segments of the population, they often operate under precarious work conditions and receive little policy support. We argue that the transition to a circular economy will be equitable and sustainable only with a detailed understanding of the working conditions of waste workers and the identification of pathways for them to secure ‘decent work’ within the realm of green transitions.