From trash to cash: waste pickers help stem the plastic pollution tide, earn thousands

Good News Notes:

The world’s ability to produce waste outpaces its ability to manage it. In Cavite, informal waste pickers are helping stem the plastic pollution tide by turning trash into useful products with the assistance of Project ASEANO.

ASEANO is a project under Partnerships in Environmental Management for the Seas of East Asia (PEMSEA), a regional organization that advocates integrated solutions for coastal and marine problems. It promotes sustainable measures to reduce the environmental impact of plastic pollution. Cavite’s Imus River is the main area of focus of its Philippine sub-component.


Metals, plastics, and other useful trash are sold by waste pickers to junkshops, which then sell them to recycling facilities that have the capacity to convert the trash into raw materials, explained Gregg H. Yan, a PEMSEA consultant, in an e-mail.

“The energy needed to create new metal alloys via mining greatly exceeds the effort needed to just melt copper, steel, or iron,” he told BusinessWorld. “Recycling is a green and more economical option.”

In a press statement, Thomas Bell, PEMSEA’s resource facility program manager, added that supporting waste pickers and recycling facilities helps convert a significant portion of waste – which would otherwise be dumped in landfills or rivers – into useful products.

“These cottage industries also support the lives and livelihoods of thousands of Filipinos,” he said.

In 2018, Cavite generated an average of 1,514 tons of waste daily – 22% of which was still recyclable, according to the Environmental Management Bureau (EWB). The average volume of wastes generated within the Calabarzon region, where Cavite is located, is about 5,694 tons a day.

The Imus River flows through the waste-generating cities of Bacoor, Dasmariñas, and Imus, before flowing out to Manila Bay.

Plastic’s largest market is packaging, noted Science Advances in a July 2017 journal, and this market growth has only increased since the world shifted from reusable to single-use containers.


In the Philippines, the informal waste sector consists of waste pickers in dumpsites and communal waste collection points. Among these are women, children, and the elderly who depend on informal waste collection due to poverty and a lack of education.

“The most sought-after types of plastics [by waste pickers] are PET bottles and hard plastics called sibak. These are what plastic monobloc chairs, jerry cans, and many toys are made of,” Mr. Yan said. “The plastics they don’t collect are disposable sando and trash bags, plus the plastic and foil packaging of sachets. This is a primary reason why these types of single-use plastics are causing enormous environmental challenges.”

One such waste picker is Sherwin Salazar, who has been hunting for scrap for 25 years in Cavite.

“I was still in school when I started pawing through old lots, dumps, and river banks in a never-ending search for bakal, bote, plastik at dyaryo (scrap metal, bottles, plastic, and newspapers). I used a big old sack that weighed so much,” he said in a PEMSEA press release. From earning P100 a day as a 12-year-old, he now earns P1,000-P1,500, thanks in part to a motorized tricycle that allows him to travel to nearby cities like Tagaytay.

Mr. Yan said that – like all business ventures – it takes time, trustworthy contacts, and capital to get to the P1,000-P1,500 a day level.

“Expanding one’s territory and creating networks is an important consideration for waste pickers to ‘lay claim’ to a large enough area to net good finds on a regular basis. Moving up the chain might also mean hiring junior waste pickers and investing in better collection equipment, like a kariton [a pushcart] or a pedicab [a tricycle with a two-seat passenger compartment],” he told BusinessWorld….”

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