Soiled hands grasp the ends of wooden 2X4’s rounded off for the purpose. A man wearing an old coat and stained wrinkled blue jeans leans forward. At the same time feet search for traction on the asphalt road. Slowly the car tires of a cart laden with cardboard, plastic and wood begins to roll forward. Car horns honk at him. The normal “Buenos Días” Colombians say to each other never is directed toward this fellow.
But he is not the only person in Colombia’s capital city making a living this way. Depending upon which report you read, between 14,000 to 16,000 professional waste pickers operate daily. They are independent workers making money only from what they collect and sell. Well before much of the rest of world thought about recycling Bogotá workers redistributed scrap. Some operating on the street today are third and fourth generation. In the process they became, in some minds, marginalized citizens often suffering discrimination as well as verbal and physical abuse.
But their system makes sense. They have a 100% positive environmental impact. When using a gasoline engine driven vehicle to pickup and deliver recyclables you adversely affect the environment. With their human power that does not happen. Not to mention that they grab litter along their routes. I doubt many driving a recycling truck in the USA do the same.
The Bogotá recyclers impact on waste management is large. In this city of over 8 million citizens they pick up and re-distribute over 1,500 tons of waste daily.
Critics thought more modern methods would be better. Some of those voiced such an opinion in hopes of fattening their own wallet with what could be a city recycling contract worth millions of dollars annually.
Women, mostly single mothers, make up almost a third of the waste pickers. One woman organized the informal recyclers. In the process she won an important court battle and an award from a world recognized environmental group.
Nohra Padilla’s family came to Bogotá as part of the over 7 million people displaced from their homes by the fighting as well as land theft by both left-wing and right-wing terrorists. At the age of seven she joined her mother in collection and recycling. By 1990 her vision included an organized group. The Association of Recyclers of Bogotá (ARB)boasts thousands of members. In 2011 they won a hard fought fight in court that informal recyclers be included as a part of the city’s waste management. Members benefits now include health and pension. In 2013 Padilla won the Goldman Environmental prize for Central and South America. More of her story can be read on the Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives web page. Another good read is from the Goldman Environmental Prize group.
Their plight and success is not a get rich quick program. In Colombia 47% of the workers make the minimum wage of under $250 USD a month or less a month. The waste pickers receive less than $50 USD for each ton of recyclables they bring in.
All of the success has not been easy for the now late 40’s woman. Both criminal parasites and economic interests with power consider her an enemy. Padilla has received verbal threats against her safety, suffered physical abuse and had her computer stolen.
When visiting Bogotá you may see these recyclers. We hope that after reading this you view at them in a different light. Do not judge all of them by their appearance. Most are hard working people trying to make a living. The job is not easy, but someone must do it. And remember, the way they work is more environmentally friendly than many places that recycle.