The recycling and disposal industry saw a significant shift due to the regulations and the change in practices during the COVID-19 pandemic. Many Latin American facilities have shut down indefinitely because of concerns that sanitary hazards could threaten workers and potentially perpetuate infections. Numerous others have decreased their operations overall as a result of commercial industries producing significantly less waste.
This situation has proved to have a variety of consequences on the industry. According to reports on solid waste management published by the Inter-American Development Bank, Latin America already suffered from inadequate service characterized by unreliable and irregular garbage collection before the pandemic.
These circumstances have only aggravated the severity of the issue. From an environmental perspective, many recyclable materials are ending up in landfills due to the shutdown of the facilities that manage them and out of the fear that recycling might spread infections even further.
However, one of the most predominant consequences is the economic impact it’s having both on workers and the facilities themselves. On a broad scale, the World Bank is foreseeing that 53 million Latin Americans will have incomes below the regional poverty line. In a culture where disposal workers already faced high levels of inequality before the pandemic, what happens to those who work in facilities that have seized or decreased operations and those who informally collect recyclable materials in exchange for money?
Inter-American Development Bank reports that around 4 million people in Latin America work to recycle, collect, and process reusable materials for a living. Only 3% of the 231 million tons of urban waste produced in the region are recycled, and recyclers manage 80% of that. Countries like Chile, Ecuador, and Argentina are seeing a crisis in this industry since the pandemic started and have since enacted regulations that try to mitigate this.
In Chile, The National Association of the Recycling Industry solicited a declaration of these operations as essential services back in April, and the government conceded. Despite this ordinance, recyclable waste collection decreased between 30% and 45% and has only gotten worse.
According to the general manager of the association, Alejandro Navech, the decreased regularity in the recyclable waste collection is due to the decrease in business production. As a result, a good part of recyclable material is being sent to landfill. Workers haven’t been able to work due to the lack of need for personnel and the shortage of material that needs to be sifted.
From an economic perspective, businesses that buy from recycling facilities to produce their product hold back on payments due to the inability to supply enough material.
In an article written by New York Times, they described the struggles of women who had unstable incomes as recycling collectors and now had no job at all, which meant that people running food banks needed to step up to help feed them and their families. The association describes it as a potential crisis for the 60 thousand independent collectors that work in the country. Many of the country’s trash pickers rummage through garbage cans searching for recyclable material even in upscale neighborhoods.
Roughly 5,000 of them organized under a collective called the “Recycling Movement,” and they point out that one of their biggest fears is that folks quarantined in their homes opt for the trash can instead of the recycling bin more and more. A collector reaffirmed this concern to U.S. News, saying “I hope I am wrong, but I don’t think there is going to be much recycling. I think people are going to throw everything away.”
On May 7, the Metropolitan Public Cleaning Company of Quito reported that some of their workers had died from COVID-19, while 43 were declared infected, and 167 others were quarantined with symptoms. As a result, they strongly encouraged a halt in production altogether.
The director of the National Alliance of Waste Pickers (RENAREC) Elvia Pizuña expressed that because recyclers live day to day, they’ve opted to defy curfew sometimes to make ends meet. She said that 75% of collectors are women and, because it’s been months since they’ve last been able to work, they struggle to feed their families.
While some get support from institutional donations or food stamps that the Municipality of Quito, many others don’t have this luxury. If they don’t belong to RENAREC or any other formalized collective, it’s more difficult to find this kind of aid. Independent recyclers like Angélica Minga look for food on the streets, risking exposure to COVID-19. Similarly, they risk eviction since they don’t know when they’ll be able to continue working.
Argentina has around 150,000 independent recyclers, but the state legitimizes only 17,000. An example of what this looks like can be seen in the capital, Buenos Aires. Although the government has effectively organized the public system in its disposal processes and maintained a steady salary for 6,000 of its workers, many others ask that same opportunity. A member of the Argentine Federation of Waste Pickers (FACyR) expressed that the members of their collective had had to seek other methods of protection and aid as essential workers.
The minister of Sustainable Environment and Development, Juan Cabandié, sparked conversations around national strategies to address waste management, with an emphasis on the workers that make it possible. There’s been movement on the government’s part to help these workers on a federal level.
The bigger picture
These countries’ dire situation is a microcosm of what is happening across Latin America amid the COVID-19 crisis. While many governmental institutions are incorporating measures in an attempt to mitigate the effects of this, there is still a lot to be done.
Economists are pointing out the enormous progress Latin America was making in closing the historical gap of inequality is now being threatened by the pandemic. This could potentially result in reversing 20 years of socioeconomic growth that allowed families to get out of poverty.