What is it about?

The waste pickers of São Paulo, Brazil and Buenos Aires, Argentina are building environmental awareness among the public through recycling. They reclaim resources from urban waste and, in some cities, they are the only ones who provide separate household waste collection. Their knowledge comes from practical experience within the current waste-management system, where they work to recover recyclable materials from municipal waste and even from landfills. The article highlights how waste pickers in São Paulo act as “insurgent citizens” by making their traditionally marginalized voices heard through inserting themselves into spaces they have been excluded from (e.g., universities), and this way, they provide more holistic and socially inclusive strategies for sustainable waste management. Further, in the context of Buenos Aires, the paper demonstrates how the waste pickers and researchers facilitated community organizing to foster understanding between waste-pickers and households in order to promote waste separation at the household level. Through these means of challenging the current waste management system, waste pickers stand as “environmental stewards” who work to challenge the current patterns of consumption and discard.

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Why is it important?

Solid waste in urban environments is a growing issue and is starting to gain more attention. Waste pickers are knowledgeable and have lived experience, yet their voices are often excluded from decision making and academic contexts where waste management conversations are happening. The waste pickers are not letting divisive social barriers get in the way of improving the waste management system, and through their recycling collective and grassroots movements, they are carving out a new more sustainable and inclusive waste management system that prioritizes education and connections. The waste pickers are not waiting to be invited to the conversation; but rather, they are inserting themselves in the conversation and claiming their seat in spaces where change is the topic of discussion.


Over the past 20 years, we have observed and accompanied waste pickers all over the world in their everyday activities of collecting, separating, baling and selling recyclable materials. In many countries, recycling would just not happen without their work. Due to their collective organization, in Brazil and Argentina, waste pickers are stepping up as environmental educators, winning new spaces and roles in recovering and transforming recyclable materials.

Dr. Jutta Gutberlet

Read the Original

This page is a summary of: Waste Pickers and Their Practices of Insurgency and Environmental Stewardship, The Journal of Environment & Development, October 2021, SAGE Publications,
DOI: 10.1177/10704965211055328.
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