The International Alliance of Waste Pickers is a union of waste picker organizations representing more than 460,000 workers across 34 countries
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Silvio Ruiz Grisales

Silvio Ruiz Grisales is a waste picker from Bogotá, Colombia. He is involved in three waste picker groups in Colombia: The Colombian Association of Waste Pickers (Asociación Colombiana de Recicladores – GAIAREC), the Waste Pickers’ Cooperative of Bogotá (ARB ESP), and the National Association of Waste Pickeres (ANR). He is also a representative of the Latin American and Caribbean network of waste pickers (Red Lacre).

Silvio began working as a waste picker in 1982, at the age of 12. At that time, he worked in the city of Manizales.

The dumpsite that he worked at had a cooperative called Cooperativa Prosperar. He was elected director of the cooperative when he was 17 years old. Since then, he’s continued to work as a leader and organizer within many organizations. He’s been involved in the creation of recycling projects.

“The work of waste pickers is one of the most important in our social history,” said Silvio. “It mitigates the devastating effects of consumerism and ‘development’ and it’s carried out by the poorest of working class people. It should be recognized by the society as an environmental public service for which we as waste pickers should be valued and paid.”

How long have you been a waste picker?

Well, I’ve been a waste picker for more than 40 years, I started when I was 12 years old and today I’m 52, and I started at the garbage dump [in the municipality] of Manizales. As a child I dropped out of school because we didn’t have food or income at home and my mother was sick, so to support her, my sister and me, I had to leave school and start recycling at the garbage dump in Manizales.

What is your greatest hope or objective as a waste picker and as a waste picker leader?

My greatest hope and objective as a waste picker is that the work of the waste pickers, the profession of popular waste pickers or grassroots waste pickers as they call us, be recognized by society, by the States, by the productive sectors such as companies, by the workers’ sectors, in general by the citizens and by society as “front line” workers in one of the most important jobs for Humanity, as is the case of waste pickers, in general by the citizens and by society as “front line” workers in one of the most important trades for Humanity, as is the recovery, the process of collection, selection, treatment, pre-transformation and transformation of recyclable materials from garbage, to turn them into new goods for society and to mitigate the harmful impacts that waste causes on the planet and on life. As a leader, my main objective is the professionalization of the work, the economic recognition of the services that the waste pickers provide both in the public sanitation service and in the environmental services and the generation of raw materials. That is to say, that in all the areas covered by recycling we will be recognized not only in a nominal and legal way but also in an economic way with incentives, and the recognition of the importance of our work and our profession. As a leader, my other interest is the organization, the self-organization of waste pickers in processes of solidarity and collective organization to be able to create forces that move society forward and that take waste pickers out of extreme and structural vulnerabilities.

What does it mean to participate as a waste picker leader in the UNEA event representing other waste pickers?

For me it is a great honor, an honor that I owe to the waste picker sector, to the organizations that have nominated me, to my national movement, to the Latin American Network  (of waste pickers), to the Global Alliance of Waste Pickers, to the allies like Gaia and Wiego, and to all the allies that make it possible for waste pickers to be present at this UNEA summit.  It is very important to raise the voice of the waste pickers, to make clear the position of the waste pickers and to try through agreements, actions and work, both through mobilization and work in its sessions, to make the voice and the purposes of the waste pickers heard; For example, the recognition of our profession, a world fund to support grassroots waste pickers so that they can improve their living and working conditions, a fund that finances waste pickers’ initiatives to move from recovery to processing and pre-processing and transformation of recyclable waste so that grassroots organizations can move up the recycling value chain in the world, because it is not fair that the work of 24 million waste pickers remains in the hands of large intermediaries and large industries without the economy and opportunities flowing to the bottom of the pyramid and workers in the sector. It is important to participate in the UNEA to determine the future of the planet in relation to the production of plastics that are difficult or impossible to recycle. It is necessary to guarantee that the plastics that are produced (if plastics continue to be produced on the planet) guarantee from the cradle itself, from the design of production, that they can be recycled, and that it is through the waste pickers.It is important to participate in the UNEA to demystify false solutions, such as incineration, and the generation of diesel and other fossil fuels based on plastics, as these generate serious difficulties for the environment and the lives of the population and take material out of the hands of popular waste pickers.

What message do you send to all the people who will listen to you at this event?

That they recognize the fundamental role of the more than 24 million waste pickers; waste pickers who put their hands in the garbage of the cities, of the municipalities of the big capitals and in the small municipalities of our planet. It is important to recognize their incalculable contribution to society in more than 100 years of the waste pickers’ profession and to begin to recognize their fundamental role in the reduction and minimization of the environmental impact of waste, and especially the fundamental role that waste pickers play in the management of plastics. It is important to recognize their organization, to give value to the voice of waste pickers and to give it due recognition.

At UNEA 5.2, Globalrec will have the opportunity to connect a delegation of waste pickers with global market leaders to engage on discussions towards a global treaty. Due to waste pickers’ vital role in the plastics issue, they always must be included in the discussion as they seek transparency, public recognition of their work and direct engagement between producers, waste-pickers (and other actors in the informal recycling sector), and governments.