The COVID crisis has made clear how essential waste workers and waste pickers are to maintaining healthy cities. As we recover, GAIA’s network members will play a key role in rebuilding their communities. This blog series, Voices of Resilience, features stories of some of the waste pickers and waste workers at the frontlines of this pandemic, who are fighting to provide essential services for their communities in spite of local governments that have failed to give them adequate safety equipment and worker protections. Thanks to the support of the GAIA community through our Emergency Solidarity Fund, we were able to support members during this critical time. While the problems of our time seem ever greater, the solutions are happening locally, through the determination of community leaders working together in solidarity across borders. These are their stories.
RESPONDING IN A TIME OF CRISIS: WASTE PICKERS IN NIGERIA AND KENYA RECEIVE SUPPORT
Waste Pickers are essential to society and pave the way for a just transition to a more sustainable, zero waste system. This important yet thankless role, means that they are often subjected to social stigmas and receive little support from local authorities. The COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated these inequalities for Waste Pickers and many individuals were unable to provide for their families, because of a lack of personal protective equipment (PPE). Through GAIA’s emergency solidarity fund groups such as the Green Knowledge Foundation (GKF) in Nigeria and the Centre for Environment Justice and Development (CEJAD) in Kenya were able to support Waste Pickers during these turbulent times.
For waste workers in Warri, Delta State Nigeria, the pandemic brought about a range of difficulties. Once the country’s national lockdown ended, waste workers were desperate to return to work after being prevented from doing so during the lockdown. They were soon faced with a new obstacle of being ill-equipped to protect themselves from the risk of exposure to COVID-19 from waste items that accumulated within household trash during their collections.This reality deterred them once again from working at their full capacity.
GKF responded to the plight of Waste Pickers in Nigeria by providing support to over 30 individuals, with sanitary masks, gloves, food items as well as information on how they can carry out their work safely. The organisation was able to reach local Waste Pickers like ThankGod Ogheneovo, who is the sole breadwinner for his family.
“I pick waste for a living and my family depends on what I bring home for survival. The pandemic took us by surprise, in such a way I could not plan for. I’m happy they have dissolved the lockdown so that I can go out to earn money for my family. Now that the lockdown has been eased, payment has been slow from my customers. I was happy to receive these food items, masks, and hand gloves. It is the first time I’ve received such a package from any organization since I started this job. We are usually seen as not important in society, thank you for identifying with us” said Ogheneovo.
Furthermore, the organisation provided support to Solomon Nnadozie, a plastic recycler from Warri.
“Being a small scale recycler of plastic waste comes with so many challenges for me. My passion for recycling has been the only thing that has kept me in this business. I was so happy to receive the support from the solidarity fund and I am encouraged to keep doing my best to recycle plastic waste in Warri,”said Solomon.
Similarly, the COVID-19 situation in Kenya put Waste Pickers at risk of contracting the virus, because of a lack of protective equipment. For many Waste Pickers this was hard to acquire, CEJAD responded to this need by reaching out to 100 waste pickers in Kisumu County and Nairobi. They were supported with dry food relief packages, sanitizers and PPE.
“I was happy to receive the support from CEJAD to provide for my family because COVID-19 has made it difficult to recover waste. Municipal trucks arrive at the dumpsites almost empty, which means that there is very little material left over to recover. So this support was indeed very helpful,” said Mercy Awino, a local waste picker.
Waste Pickers in Kenya are also faced with a lack of supportive structures, that will enable them to voice their concerns and add their perspectives.
“Integrating Waste Pickers formally into the waste sector provides them with the opportunity to promote, defend and protect their interests and rights to earn an income from selling recovered waste materials. They can hardly do this at the moment as waste picking is considered informal,”said Dorothy Otieno from CEJAD.
Moreover, Otieno said that the integration of Waste Pickers in Kenya will ensure fair economic return for materials sold to recycling industries, as well as to secure contracts with corporate companies and municipalities.