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Trash-picking becomes a booming underground economy

Digging for trash, and paying for it?

Digging for trash, and paying for it?


Most people would turn up their nose at the idea. Not so for Kelly Maby.


The American college student is using a $28,000 scholarship to study scavenging around the world.


Maby is no newcomer to scavenging.


“When I was around eight years old, my family wasn’t doing so well, so my brother and I collected beer cans and bottles,” she tells Metro. “We actually thought it was fun.”


It was so much fun that Maby will spend her scholarship studying scavenging — also known as waste-picking — in Egypt, Brazil, Guatemala and Ecuador.


She has already completed a stay with a three-generation family in Cairo’s Garbage City.


“We think of scavenging as desperate poverty,” she explains. “But it’s often extremely well organized, and much cleaner than it sounds.”


Garbage City operates on a multi-level system, with some families collecting the trash, others sorting it, while others resell it.


Cairo lacks official sanitation services — but thanks to scavengers, 80 per cent of its trash is recycled.


According to a new report by Martin Medina at the United Nations University (UNU), at least 15 million people earn their living as waste-pickers.


“This is a huge informal economy,” reports Maby, a senior at Wheaton College (Massachusetts), who reports on trash-hunting in Tales from the Trash Can: An Analysis of the Informal Waste Management Circuits of Buenos Aires, Bangalore, and Beijing.


The global impact of scavenging is estimated at several billion dollars per year, and it’s a growing sector. According to the Medina’s report — scavengers are benefiting from increasing demand for recycled materials.


“Garbage still has a stigma, but that means the families that do it have a monopoly,” notes Jo Beall. “Even though it’s dangerous work, the recycling boom is good news for them.”


Beall, the author of Dealing with dirt and the Disorder of Development: Managing Rubbish in Urban Pakistan, directs the Development Studies Institute at the London School of Economics.
Even though waste-pickers’ goods usually re-enter the formal economy, their lives can look like Slumdog Millionaire.


“It is dirty,” says Maby, currently on a trash expedition in Sao Paulo.


“But without scavengers many cities would have no waste management at all.”


Cairo’s Garbage City and Southeast Asian waste-picking colonies are an incredibly well-functioning machine. The waste-pickers are highly skilled and can, for example, tell which piece of plastic is recyclable.