Improved Working Conditions for Recyclers Also Benefit Ocean Health

What does social justice in the Andes mountains have to do with ocean plastic pollution?

Last summer while visiting family in Bogotá, Colombia, a city located 9,000 feet above sea level in the Andes, I noticed more plastics than during my visit a decade ago. I also visited my city of birth, Santa Marta, a port city on the Colombian Caribbean coast. Although these two cities are 600 miles apart and have wildly different climates, social justice in Bogotá is deeply interconnected to plastic pollution in the Caribbean.

Santa Marta is just 15 miles from La Ciénaga Grande, a coastal wetland slightly larger than Rhode Island that is recognized as the most productive estuarine system in the world. La Ciénaga and its mangrove forest are home to 130 fish species and 200 bird species, among other wildlife. La Ciénaga and its incredible diversity are fed by the warm embrace of the Caribbean Sea and the Magdalena River, a 956-mile-long river that drains Colombia from south to north.

Rivers and waterways are conduits for water, nutrients, sediment and life. Unfortunately, they have also become conduits for plastic pollution, carrying waste into the ocean from places where waste management systems are overwhelmed with the amount of plastic being produced or where illegal dumping occurs. Sadly, the Magdalena is no different, transporting Bogotá’s plastic waste footprint and that of 34 million people across its basin into the Ciénaga and the Caribbean.

During my trip, I also witnessed part of the system that deals with this massive amount of plastic waste. I saw human-powered carts carrying vast amounts of recyclable materials. Informal sector waste collectors in Colombia and across the globe help fulfill our mission to protect the ocean from one of today’s greatest global challenges, plastic pollution. According to Ocean Conservancy’s local partner Compromiso Empresarial para el Reciclaje (CEMPRE), by the end of their daily journey, each of these unrecognized environmentalists carry up to 330 pounds of recyclable materials on their backs. In Colombia alone, these unsung heroes recover at least 1.2 billion pounds of plastics and recyclable materials from the waste stream every year, preventing many of those materials from entering landfills and the ocean.

In Bogota’s cloud forest climate, these environmental stewards often walk city streets in the rain with temperatures that average just 57 degrees Fahrenheit. In Santa Marta’s coastal climate, they often work in muggy conditions under the beating sun in temperatures north of 90 degrees Fahrenheit. They work without formal contracts, minimum wage, overtime, health insurance or any minimal health and safety standards. Their hope at the beginning of each shift is to be able to collect enough recyclable materials to bring home between $2 and $16 per day (based on research done by CEMPRE) to provide for their families. 

Because of fossil-fuel subsidies, it is currently cheaper to make plastics from crude oil than from recycled plastic. In 2022, the 20 biggest economies in the world provided fossil-fuel subsidies amounting to U.S. $1.4 trillion despite committing to phasing out fossil fuel two years ago. The work of informal sector waste collectors like those in Bogotá and Santa Marta, and across the globe, is local, but that doesn’t mean they are isolated from global forces. Cheaper virgin plastic decreases the demand for recycled plastic. As demand for recycled plastic decreases, what these workers get paid per pound also decreases, affecting their daily well-being.

Waste collector walks on the street
An informal sector waste collector (sometimes called a recycler or waste picker) carries their daily load of recyclables that they have gathered from homes, businesses, roadways, and other places, through the streets in Colombia.

Recognizing the contribution of informal sector waste collectors in protecting the ocean and improving material circularity is why Ocean Conservancy established a partnership with CEMPRE and the Inclusive Waste Recycling Consortium in Colombia. Since 2021, more than 26 informal recycling cooperatives have been supported with training on health, safety, labor laws and management, as well as enhanced income opportunities through this partnership. These trainings, in combination with actions to leverage, formalize and dynamize the commercialization of material under the Extended Producer Responsibility framework, have enabled the cooperatives to enter the Colombian government formalization process. As a result, the government will recognize them as service providers, providing additional income—a small but important step in pursuing a more just system.

I moved out of Colombia in 2000 to look for a place to further my education; a series of fortuitous events resulted in my living in the United States. My only certainty when I left home was that wherever I ended up, I wanted eventually to contribute to conservation in Colombia. I have been looking for this opportunity ever since. When I started my job at Ocean Conservancy in February 2023, I was not yet aware of the partnerships in Colombia, but soon learned the opportunity I had been seeking was here. From conversations with informal waste collectors, I learned about how Ocean Conservancy’s involvement in advancing social justice issues (e.g., trainings on health, safety and labor laws) contributes to the individual empowerment of these workers and dignifies their work. From them, I learned the impact of working on plastic pollution through a justice lens supports a motivated workforce that continues to keep plastics out of the ocean from places as far away as the Andes.

Pushing for a decrease in plastic production, especially here in the United States where much of it is produced, will cut the amount of plastic that could enter the ocean, as well as improve air and water quality in communities around petrochemical facilities. At the same time, dignifying the labor of informal sector waste collectors across the globe contributes to less plastic entering the ocean and therefore a healthier ocean. Ocean Conservancy is advocating for the inclusion of informal sector waste collectors in the negotiations for a global plastics treaty (currently underway). We are also advocating for a reduction in plastic production overall. I hope you can join us to continue advocating for the inclusion of justice as the lens through which conservation is conducted.

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