Although it’s more common to focus on controlled, industrial processes behind recycling, there’s also a lot of less-visible activity behind the scenes in many parts of the world: the activity of scavengers who sift through mixed waste to reclaim plastics and other materials of value. And this scavenging doesn’t just exist in poor or developing countries, but in a variety of regions and urban environments.
In a developing country, as its economy expands, this scavenging activity can shift, as Brazilian recycling expert Adriano Assi explained in an interview with Resource Recycling. Brazil has long relied on scavengers for supplying its secondary materials market, but as the country’s economy grows and demands even more materials, the country ironically is losing its corps of scavengers as they get better, formal jobs.
Elsewhere, local authorities have their own ambiguous views about their “informal sector” of recyclers. Scavengers do collect valuable materials that eventually are transformed into new products, but in places as diverse as India and New York City, questions remain about how much they interfere with conventional recycling collection. For example, when scavengers are able to collect the most valuable plastic recyclables right before scheduled waste pickups, municipal collection systems becomes less profitable. (And in New York, an expanded bottle bill only increases the value of the material, and the motivation of scavengers.)
Scavengers and their related issues show just how interesting it is to study the field of consumer goods and packaging – there’s complexity everywhere: in consumers (rich and poor), materials (valuable and less valuable), recycling (formal and informal), and waste (recoverable and non-recoverable).
P.S.-- A documentary about scavengers was released recently – click here to see its video trailer.
Mike Tolinski is the author of Plastics and Sustainability, published in Oct. 2011 by Wiley-Scrivener, and he is Contributing Editor for Plastics Engineering magazine of the Society of Plastics Engineers in the USA. His views have been shaped by his engineering, university, and journalism experience in the plastics and manufacturing industries over the past 22 years. You can follow Mike and be alerted on blog updates via Twitter.