by Melanie Samson, Federico Parra and Olga Abizaid – March 10, 2014
March 1 was Global Waste Picker Day. Started in Colombia to commemorate the murder of 11 waste pickers in 1992, it has grown into a global event. Every year on this day waste pickers around the world mobilize to demand that they be respected and their contributions to the environment and economy recognized.
This year should have been a time of great celebration for Bogotá’s waste pickers. For the first time they are formally integrated into the city’s waste management system and are paid by the city for collecting recyclables. Gustavo Petro, the city’s mayor, is ensuring that they are no longer seen as expendable human waste, and are now valued as people who provide a key service to the city’s residents.
But instead, the waste pickers took to the streets to protest Petro’s removal from office over his efforts to create a more just and environmentally sustainable waste system.
A load of rubbish
Petro was elected mayor in October 2011. But on 9 December 2013 Inspector General Alejandro Ordóñez ordered that he be dismissed and banned from politics for 15 years for trying to bring waste management back into the public sector. On Feb 27, 2014 Colombia’s Council of State confirmed the Inspector General's actions. If appeals currently before other courts fail, Bogotá’s left leaning mayor will soon be out of office.
Surprisingly this political mess all started over a load of rubbish. Looking at the trashy politics underpinning Petro’s ousting reveals just what a tragedy it is for democracy and social justice in Colombia.
In 2012 Petro cancelled costly contracts with private waste management companies and had the municipality take over rubbish collection. When trash was not collected for three days during the handover in December 2012, Ordóñez ruled that this violated free competition and caused an environmental crisis.
Yet Petro’s waste management model is one of the best in the world and is seen as a model across the globe.
Without waste management our gleaming modern cities quickly grind to a halt.
This multibillion dollar industry provides income for two groups: more than 15 million waste pickers worldwide, and corporations that make huge profits from privatization.
Waste pickers are the unsung environmental heroes of our age. UN Habitat estimates they collect 50 to 100% of waste in most developing cities.
Their astounding recycling rates put fancy first-world systems to shame. In 2008 only 7% of Brazilian municipalities had formal recycling programmes, but because of waste pickers 92% of aluminium and 80% of cardbooard were recycled. Rotterdam's 30% recycling rate pales in comparison.
"Modernization" is not always good policy
Despite their contributions, waste pickers are almost universally derided, their critical role in waste management overlooked.
From Bogotá to Cairo to Delhi, local governments seeking to "modernize" their trash systems adopt privatization models from Europe and North America that sideline waste pickers.
Privatization of waste management is bad policy for three reasons. First, privatization results in precipitous drops in recycling rate. Typically, private companies are discouraged from recycling as they are paid per tonne disposed. Targets are set too low — Cairo's waste pickers remove 66% of materials from the waste stream, but privatization contracts only require a 20% rate.
Second, privatization increases poverty as it robs waste pickers of their livelihood. They already pick garbage for a living and have few other options.
Third, privatization dramatically increases costs. In 2012 Colombia's Auditor General found that the four companies contracted by Bogotá recorded profit levels of 23% by overcharging residents by 20%.
Petro's system counters these problems of privatization and is lauded around the world. As a zero waste system it is good for the environment. It alleviates poverty and promotes economic fairness by paying waste pickers for their environmental service. Waste pickers divert 600 tonnes of waste a day from the dump, saving Bogotá transport costs and landfill space. But historically they were not paid for this. Their only income came only from the sale of recyclables, and three-quarters earned under the minimum wage. Now the city pays those who are registered and have a bank account the same amount per tonne recycled as it pays private companies for sending waste to the landfill.
Bogotá's new trash system is also cost-effective. Costs have decreased 37% since the municipally owned Aguas de Bogotá began providing 66% of the service.
A just system
Petro did not dream up this innovative system on his own. The transformation was driven by the city's waste pickers through their organization the Asociación de Recicladores de Bogotá (ARB).
The ARB won two landmark constitutional court victories challenging their exclusion from the privatized trash system. In 2003 the court instructed the city to build waste pickers' capacity to compete for future tenders. The city failed to comply. So in 2012 the court blocked the new US$1.7bn tender and ordered the municipality to give waste pickers exclusive access to recyclables and pay them for their service.
When Petro took office he seized this as an opportunity to restructure the waste system to prioritize environmental sustainability and cost efficiency by ending privatization and promoting zero waste.
This effort to end privatization led to Petro's ousting. But what was the real cause of the trash crisis when the city took over waste management?
In a remarkable interview with El Espectador, Emilio Tapia, the key witness in the corruption scandal that brought down Petro’s predecessor, revealed that the private waste companies were the real source of the crisis.
Petro wanted to extend the private contracts for six months while he built state capacity to deliver the service. But, according to Tapia, the companies wanted to force Petro to give them new long-term contracts. So they refused the short-term extensions, stopped collecting trash, and conspired to create the crisis for which Petro is blamed.
Bogotá's garbage crisis is not, therefore, evidence of the inherent incompetence of the state in general or Petro in particular. Instead it reveals how the beneficiaries of privatization engaged in dirty politics to prevent a democratically elected government from ending a system that paid them huge profits, but cost the city's residents a fortune. Municipalities elsewhere face similar vested interests and challenges in reversing privatization.
Petro's waste system is not perfect. Waste pickers say too few receive payments and fear new proposals will marginalize them. But they join tens of thousands of people protesting Petro's removal from power. They want him to remain so they can continue to negotiate a fairer, more equitable, environmentally sustainable public waste management system. Bogotá's waste system is a model for municipalities worldwide. Together with Petro and Colombian democracy it must be defended.