What challenges do informal recycling workers face for improving the waste management system in Asuncion? How can we improve their quality of life and also increase the volume of recyclable material they recover? How canwe answer these questions through a participatory processof production upgrading that incorporates waste pickers’ perspectives and addresses their challenges, values, and expectations? Since mid-2020, #AccLabPY has been analyzing daily recycling experience in Asunción through the perspective of the protagonists: urban waste pickers. In this post, we explain how we began to answer these questions and what we learned from the collective intelligence  that emerges through participatory mapping of a day in the life of the San Francisco neighborhood waste pickers.
Recovery of recyclable material as service
Collective action for recycling depends on trust among the people who inhabit the city, and it starts in every home, company or institution that is a point source for municipal solid waste. However, to take recycling to the necessary scale, waste must not only be properly sorted at its source, it must reach a point where it is effectively recycled: the cardboard from that old box that we discard at home needs to reach the facility that can use it as a raw material for a new product.
In Asunción, like in many other cities in Latin America, differentiated waste collection is not part of public or private municipal waste collection services. Yet, the demand for this service exists: there are companies that use recyclables as raw material and intermediaries that purchase these materials and sell to those companies. This logistics services for this chain are provided by urban waste pickers, informal workers who travel around the city every day to recover material that can be recycled.
To improve the waste management system, it is crucial to understand the experience of these essential and central actors in the recycling process. Our journey towards a more inclusive and productive recycling process started in the San Francisconeighborhood in collaboration with the Recyclers Association that emerged in 2019, and which the UNDP’s Asunción Ciudad Verde de las Américas project has accompanied since, with activities to strengthen and integrate the association into the planning processes of the neighborhood’s future recycling.
In early 2020 we began casual conversations with waste pickers and neighborhood residents, identifying with them the context in which they work. "They are all very good neighbors here. In my block we have a mixture of Zeballos [neighborhood] and Chacarita [neighborhood], " saida resident originally from the Zeballos Cue neighborhood. "We are happy when we see the garbage separated... we teach people to separate", expressesone of the recyclers; but also, “we need to know where there is scale, we have to show that we get enough volume to get better prices", said another.
To gain insight into community dynamics and challenges, we also interviewed social workers who accompanied the construction of Barrio San Francisco housing project and the relocation of the community and its residents from two other vulnerable neighborhoods. For example, the accumulation of waste in waste pickers homes creates tensions with other residents. The association emerges in this context and with the goal of creating a formal organization to receive donations and coordinate recycling work with companies and other institutions. Responding to this same context, UNDP designated dedicated space for waste separation in the design of the neighborhood’s future recycling plant.
"A Day in the Life"
"[When we go around], we draw a zigzag between the houses, collecting everything that can be recycled from the bags in the streets, until we come back to our neighborhood", explains one of Association’s waste pickers.
"We don't know the people who live in the places we visit. Of about 200 households in [the neighborhood of] Villamorra, maybe 2 separate their waste, and they do so mainly because they don't want anyone to break their bags."
We collected these testimonies during a workshop that employed a ("A Day in the life") toolkit, which collaboratively maps the individual work routines and personal lives of the participants, using their experiences from the day before the workshop as a model. The toolkit seeks to facilitate mutual learning and empathy, while generating detailed accounts of the daily interactions between waste pickers, their neighborhoods, and the communities they serve, as well their perspectives on the main challenges and concerns they face daily in a city that does not value the environmental and social services they offer.
"Once, a lady found me looking into a bag that someone else had broken and gave me a bad look"
"Some areas with security guards don't allow us to do our job"
"Many people call us out, for touching the garbage or disturbing in traffic"
Through this activity, we mapped 223 hours of the lives of 10 male and female members of the Recyclers’ Association. A detailed classification of these hours reveals the diversity and richness of wastpickers’ profiles and their daily work. They invest approximately 42% of their day (or 10 hours a day) to the waste management work in Asuncion.
A key finding was that domestic and care work is at the center of almost every participant’s daily routine. "I like to be a waste picker because I have flexibility and I can pick up my children from school”, one of the association's recyclers told us when filling out the sheet, explaining that the breaks in their recycling route were for these tasks.
Activity distribution during the day according to the 223 hours mapped in the "A Day in the Life" workshop. In blue tones, the activities intended for the collection and separation of recyclables.
A day of learning
By mapping "a day in life" we were able to collaboratively build the approximate profile of the San Francisco neighborhood waste pickers.
Typical waste picker profile in Asunción’s San Francisco neighborhood, based on the analysis of the workshop and qualitative interview data.
We were also able to identify the commercial and logistical challenges they face on a daily basis:
· The San Francisco neighborhood is far from the spaces where waste pickers collect recyclables. Large distances between their new neighborhood and their place of work translate into higher fuelcosts and seriously limits the productivity and profitof those who collect waste by foot closerto their homes.
· Recycling companies impose conditions that waste pickers cannot meet, such as demanding (1) minimum volumes that exceed what workers can accumulate, and (2)establishingquality standards that change arbitrarily or are unclear, according to waste pickers.
· These conditions limit waste pickers’ bargaining power and force them to sell at below-market prices to intermediaries that are able to meet quality standards. This intermediation separates waste pickers from the industries that demand recycled material, blunting incentives for them to add value to recovered recyclables or to adopt cooperative practices to improve their productivity.
Our participatory mapping exercise identified the need to strengthen the recyclers’ association and their relationships with one another. In part 2 of this post, we will explain how we deepened our learning with a series of interviews and GPS mapping of recyclers informal routes. Sharing the results with the recyclers, through an interactive workshop, not only prompted a discussion of collective resources and cooperative practices within the association, but also promoted new synergies with private companies, for example, the pilot of “Mi Barrio Sin Residuos” a project to match private households with recyclers that is serving 5 selected neighborhoods.