In an era of the COVID-19 pandemic, it has become more urgent to integrate the informal waste pickers – mostly women, ensure their safety and acknowledge their contribution to the overall environmental quality of many urban and peri-urban areas. – Joshua Amponsem, Green Africa Youth Organization.
In Ghana, informal waste pickers (sometimes referred to as scavengers) play an important role in the solid waste management system, acting in a parallel way to formal waste collection and disposal agents. Informal recycling activities by the informal waste pickers notably, contribute positively to the economy by reducing the costs of waste management systems and providing income opportunities for large numbers of poor people (UN-HABITAT 2010). The environmental and economic contributions of informal workers to local governments, local communities, and value chains in many ways are unrecognized. The creation of linkages between the informal sector, municipal and metropolitan departments, and the formal sector is necessary to promote effective waste management in Ghana. Municipalities play a critical role in the integration process, as they are generally the official providers of waste management services to communities (UNECE, 2018).
Informal Waste Pickers and Municipal Brainstorm
To support local government offices in their efforts to enhance waste management, Green Africa Youth Organization (GAYO) in partnership with University of Ghana’s Institute of Environment and Sanitation Studies (IESS) organized a stakeholders’ workshop to strategize on means to regulate the informal waste sector in the work of the Ga-East Municipal Assembly. Additionally, the workshop explored advocacy strategies to promote collaboration between formal and informal waste actors in the Municipality.
Building on an initial hypothesis that integration of informal waste pickers into the municipal structure will boost the social image of the Municipal Assembly, make room for further public participation toward waste management and create a platform to attract both internal and external support for both the informal waste sector and the municipal assembly, the workshop focused mainly on developing structures for regulating informal sector activities and strengthening advocacy for the work of informal waste pickers. Given the aforementioned objectives, the participation of the workshop was limited to the leaders of the existing informal waste picker groups, representatives of the Ga-East Municipal, academia and the formal sector. The workshop which took place on 29 April 2020 at the Ga East Municipality saw the participation of 18 stakeholders from these sectors. The discussion among stakeholders took place in two sections: open forum and groupings (informal waste pickers and the Municipality).
The open forum centred on the following; (i) The absence of a regulatory system for the informal waste sector. (ii) The willingness of the informal sector to engage with the Assembly. (iii) The challenges faced by the informal sector in conducting their duties. (iv) Nuisances caused by the informal sector when conducting their work. (v) The readiness of the assembly to engage the informal sector and their immediate plan of using a task force to commence their registration. (vi) The informal waste pickers not considered in PPE distribution in the COVID -19 outbreak even though they are in direct contact with waste and can easily be infected.
There were several problems identified by the informal waste pickers. Regardless of context specificities, some of the problems that stood out were insecurities, health and safety challenges, and infrastructural limitations (non-existence of dumpsites).
The brainstorming group addressed the questions – how to engage, who to engage, what support can be given, and when to engage.
The informal sector sort to address the concerns of the Municipality problem by presenting themselves formally to the leadership of the Municipality. The waste picker team also agreed to present contact persons to the District Assembly and coordinate efforts with their colleagues (informal waste pickers). And lastly, on support, the waste pickers will provide details of all informal waste pickers/ membership lists, individuals to serve as a task force to ensure enforcement of rules and regulations to identify illegal operators in the informal waste sector and provide capacity for sanitation volunteering clean up exercises. Additionally, the group stated that the time to act is now! GAYO will assist in the organizing of the waste picker groups and help document their activities to support their formalizing process.
The Municipal consented to the proposed action plans alternatively and stated that they will formally meet with the informal waste sectors and register all their members. The Municipal further added that they would involve the Unit Committee (leaders in waste operation), resident associations, community, Assembly Members, and the formal waste sectors in any further waste management programs and decision making. Not forgetting to provide support in the following areas: allocation of dumpsite, training, and empowerment (Health and general sanitation) for accountability, personal protective equipment, and encourage residents to register for the waste collection. The Municipal will acknowledge the informal waste sector and grant them accessibility to closed areas and explore the possibility for issuing them formal contracts – this will be a huge breakthrough and a success for the informal waste pickers, as well as, GAYO and IESS who are committed to supporting informal waste pickers.
Challenges and Next Steps
While the outcomes from both parties are exciting, the limitation of time, misunderstanding, disagreements, and funding might be challenging. The integration is possible as agreed by the stakeholders but the implementation and sustainability will require substantial efforts from GAYO and other CSOs to support the development of inclusive, non-tokenistic and equity-based regulations to guide the process. Cooperation of private sector entities, central government policies and the entire public will be needed.
Formal integration entails transforming the terms, and nature of the relationship established between the local government office, waste pickers, and residents. The process of integrating waste pickers is a long-term commitment. This means that the country, as a whole, needs to have a clear vision of informal waste pickers as legitimate partners, and how they fit within the sustainable waste management system. The governments and CSOs should invest heavily in environmental education to encourage citizens to segregate their waste, which would lead to maximizing waste processing efforts and reducing occupational risks for waste pickers. Enhanced education and workshops like this, would also disseminate the information of the valuable environmental role waste pickers have in society, further working towards the elimination of the stigma suffered by these workers and encourage the formal sector to interact with waste pickers in a more respectful and empowering ways. The successful integration process commenced by the Ga East Municipal Assembly with the Ga East Nkosua Informal Waste Pickers will serve as a baseline model for further integration efforts. GAYO, IESS and it’s partners will remain committed to support and scale this effort to other MMDAs across the country.