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City Report: Interview with a local Waste Picker

A Conversation With: Louie Lizano (waste picker and organizer) from Manila, Philippines.

Personal Story

Louie began picking waste in 1972 at the age of seven, but stopped in 2007 when he became president of a newly organized waste pickers’ group. His grandparents were waste pickers, working in what was then the largest dumpsite in Manila, the old Smoky Mountain dumpsite. Because he had to go to school, Louie picked waste at night. Waste picking was physically dangerous and exhausting. When Louie was a boy, his work was considered theft. If caught, you could be shot or forced to eat whatever you took. Louie never dreamed he would be a waste picker for the rest of his life. When a group member approached him about organizing, he was ready to try to do something different to help waste pickers improve their situations.

Formal Solid Waste Management System

The city of Manila does the waste collection and disposal, but contracts a truck company to go door-to-door, collecting mixed waste. The waste goes to a barge and is transported to a landfill in a different province. There is no official program for recycling or composting, which is why Louie reached out to the anti-incinerator group GAIA to learn more about what to do with waste streams in the city. There are rumours that a district congressman in his area wants to build an incinerator. The waste pickers are afraid they will lose their jobs as a result.

Informal Recycling System

In addition to the door-to-door collection by the government employees, a group of waste pickers collect door-to-door. These waste pickers engage with the households and they request that the owners give them their waste. It is up to the residents to pay them adequately. Currently, the waste pickers do not have a formal relationship with the city government, but they have a relationship with the local (called Barangay) officials, who are helping with the door-to-door collection.The waste pickers collect recyclables, including plastic, sacks, bottles, iron, aluminum, e-waste, cartons, wood, rubber, paper, glass, and aluminum. Segregation happens on the barge. There are about 20 junk shops at the city pier that are owned by former waste pickers.The waste pickers do not have an antagonistic relationship with the municipality, but politicians use them a lot, especially during elections. Politicians promise all sorts of help and then they win and nothing changes for the waste pickers. Louis reports that same thing happens every election cycle.

Waste Picker Organization

As far as Louie knows, his group is the only organized waste picker group in the city.The group organized in order to lobby for help from the government. Members have been meeting about setting aside enough funds to change their business model. Specifically, they want to move up the recyclables market chain – they would like to buy recyclables themselves, and deliver them directly to the recyclers. They would like to either purchase small vehicles to help them do collection, or they would like the government to give them assistance in this effort.Louie is learning about different models of waste management around the world. Last year, he came back from a meeting and told his group about the Pune model, which they want to emulate in Manila. In the short term, they would like to organize with waste pickers from other districts. The waste pickers in Louie’s group aim to be given access to the waste on the barge, as well as to get permission to do door-to-door collection for the entire city of Manila.

Current Central Issues

The biggest challenge for waste pickers in Manila is safety. The barge only allows 30 minutes for a team of waste pickers to sort through trash before a bulldozer comes in to push the waste forward, making it possible for another load to be brought in. Some waste pickers jump into the trucks before they dump. Waste picking in the barge is illegal, though collecting from the streets or doing door-to-door collection is legal. Medical and e-waste, which can be contaminated or dangerous to handle, also present a challenge. When they get e-waste, the waste pickers burn the cables to get the copper inside, which presents a health concern. “It happens every afternoon – like clockwork 3 p.m. until 6 p.m.,” says Louie.