Globe, Latin America, United Kingdom

Child waste pickers: saying goodbye to childhood

They live in Bolivia, Panama and Colombia but represent around 18 million worldwide. They are just children who were told they could not have a childhood like many others or go to school. They would have to start working because the poverty of their families had to be fought together.


Photo by Marko Milivojevic / Pixnio. Creative Commons License.

Zeus Naya


So very early every morning, Hugo, Jayden and Sebastian, with sturdy clothes and rucksacks on their backs, head out to places where they can find the things they can sell to survive.

They are waste pickers and therefore depend on the waste they process, mainly – because they have acquired practice – electrical and electronic equipment from computers, mobile phones, refrigerators and others.

Their reality is that of many children and adults in Latin America and the Caribbean, a region where burning cables to obtain copper is one of the most common and highly exposed practices, with a high impact on health.

In the cases of Hugo, Jayden and Sebastian, as well as their close relatives, the electronic waste contains various toxic additives or hazardous substances, which, according to experts in the field, get into the body through inhalation, ingestion and absorption through the skin.

According to Bolivian doctor Banny Zelada, this exposure constitutes “a silent disease” and “the effects can be harmful for life, because children’s bodies absorb more and excrete less than those of adults”.

Rubbish in Latin America

According to World Bank statistics, this continent produces at least 430,000 tonnes per day, similar to the fact that each inhabitant of the region produces on average between one and 14 kilograms (2.2 and 31 pounds) of rubbish.

Photo: Pixnio. Creative Commons License.

The Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) reports that of the total, only 5% is recovered, and 80% of this is done by recyclers; the rest, 95%, ends up in rubbish dump, landfills or in the sea.

Around four million people (many unknown) make a living from collecting and processing materials and 1.5 million do so informally.

In March 2019, at a regional recycling summit in Colombia, participants agreed on the need for those involved in the trade to change their conditions of informality and insecurity.

“The first thing is to make waste pickers visible as a central actor in solid waste management in Latin America and to make it known that there are cases where their inclusion has yielded good results and that they can be part of the solution,” said IDB specialist Germán Sturzenegger.

The executive highlighted the importance of continuing to identify public and private sector policies to generate integration initiatives.

However, analysts questioned the implementation of broader strategies aimed at children involved in informal recycling, who work in unhealthy conditions and with materials that are hazardous to their health.

“Many people, especially those of higher economic status, only care that the truck comes by and takes away their rubbish bag,” says Chile’s former environment minister, Pedro Badenier.

Photo: Pixabay

Risk awareness

The Pan American Health Organisation (PAHO) is promoting an initiative to raise awareness of the harms of e-waste recycling – which it describes as a poison – that are increasing due to the prevalence of poor working methods.

Based on pilot initiatives, the organisation shows that training, intersectoral collaboration, understanding of the different degrees of vulnerability and preventive measures have a positive impact on reducing the problem.

PAHO’s proposals involve, among others, the health sector, especially at the primary care level, and include the identification of local risks, generation of opportunities, broadening of inclusive management models, multidisciplinary actions and/or safe alternatives. UN data indicate that waste volumes will continue to increase in the coming years, which means that more people will be linked to the sad reality of informal recycling, directly or indirectly.

Experts call on governments for unity, transparency, approval or monitoring of solid waste management laws, differentiated collection. (PL)

(Translated by Rene Phelvin – Email Pixabay

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