In a depot near Canelones, Uruguay, a team of men and women wearing boiler suits and safety gloves separate glass, cans and plastic on a conveyor belt. Machines cleaning and packaging the materials for recycling can be heard whirring in the background. Crates packed full of newly recycled plastic bottles line the walls of the warehouse waiting to be sent to the processing plant. It is near the end of the day and the workers will soon be collecting their earnings and leaving for the day. Before joining the waste cooperative, Ave Fenix (The Phoenix), the workers were part of an informal labour-force which gathered rubbish from the streets and sprawling landfill sites around the city in search of recyclable materials. Due to the lack of official sorting sites, the waste collectors were forced to use the sides of roads, nearby wastelands or even their homes to sift through the rubbish. Leaking batteries, dirty nappies and contaminated needles were just some of the hazards they were exposed to on a daily basis. For many, the conditions and risk of infection were overshadowed by the indignity of the daily work and the harassment they were subjected to on the streets of the city. As informal workers they had no contracts, no pension, no guarantee of work and they were powerless to demand better working conditions. Informal waste collectors have long been the invisible but essential link in the waste management cycle - until now. For the first time, waste recyclers in Uruguay are recognized by national law - giving them the right to decent working conditions, stable salaries and social protection. Prompted by a new understanding of the linkages between poverty and environment at the national policy level, the government of Uruguay is committing more funds and resources to apply the same lessons to other major issues confronting the country. In May, countries will meet in Nairobi for UNEA 2 – the world's de facto "Parliament for the Environment" – to discuss how an efficient use of resources can spur economic growth and job cration. Instituting a safe and efficient management of solid waste is one way of ensuring the decoupling of resource use from economic growth - a vital step towards achieving the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. The waste industry is a big business in Uruguay, where 92 per cent of the population lives in urban areas and 40 per cent in the capital. In Montevideo alone up to 800 tonnes of household waste is processed daily. In the push for a greener economy the plan is for that figure to increase substantially in the coming years. An important link in the waste cycle is the gathering, sorting and selling materials to be recycled. Traditionally, the work has been carried out by a workforce of informal waste recyclers - according to government estimates, 30,000 people in Montevideo are involved in this sector. In the past, waste management has been seen as an environmental issue in Uruguay and one that primarily concerns municipalities. Working in partnership with the Poverty-Environment Initiative (PEI), a joint programme between UNDP and UNEP, the government is now approaching the issue from a very different angle, one that considers the human, as well as the ecological, dimensions of the waste cycle.
Mapping the problem
To understand the different stages of the waste cycle, and the scope to improve its environmental and social performance, PEI brought together the Planning and Budget Office, the Ministry of Social Development and the Ministry of Housing, Land Planning and Environment. Gabriel Labatte, PEI Regional Coordinator, recalls how initially government representatives were not convinced that poverty alleviation and environmental protection could be tackled by a joint policy framework and bring about change on the ground. But by working together to map out the whole waste management cycle, they understood that this was not merely an issue of resource efficiency or environmental protection. It was one of health, due to the unsanitary conditions that workers were subjected to; it was one of social policy, including child labour and access to social security; and it was one that shaped the prospects of some of the poorest communities in Uruguay.
Re-framing the law
Together, the ministries turned their attention to the current institutional arrangements for the waste cycle, particularly the Packaging Law created in 2004 to promote the reduction, reuse, recycling and recovery of disposable packaging, which was already under review. The law was aimed at clarifying institutional responsibilities, such as those of the supermarkets and manufacturers to recycle their goods, rather than the role of informal waste collectors - the human link in the chain. Supported by the PEI, the government revised the Packaging Law to support new management systems that focus explicitly on the role that informal workers play in the waste cycle. A centralized plan was launched under the aegis of the Uruguayan Chamber of Industries to build "clean recycling circuits" that prioritize the recruitment of informal workers.
Law into practice
In the process of devising the national policy, central government ministries were keen for more evidence as to how it would be realized on the ground. So, working closely with the Canelones municipalities, the initiative tested the new management systems in four pilot waste cooperatives, including the Ave Fenix depot, developing business plans that would not only support their operations and bring in a stable source of income for all of the workers, but would also provide a decent standard of work and access to social security. For Viviana Basanto, of the Ministry of Social Affairs, the work at the cooperative level was critical for understanding the human dimensions of the waste cycle for the first time "PEI's analysis made this a social issue. It brought the vision of our ministries closer together." On the basis of findings from the pilot cooperatives, the PEI initiative was able to model the national level policy framework to ensure that aspects such as health, sanitation, and social security were prioritized in management models. Today, an estimated 270 waste workers are involved in cooperatives similar to Ave Fenix in Canelones. Local governments provide sanitary recycling depots and sorting equipment. Waste recyclers receive basic social protection measures as well as twice the minimum wage. Above all, workers describe how the employment is giving them back their sense of dignity and self-esteem. The cooperatives are already performing well, achieving a recovery rate of 17 per cent of solid waste. Just as the name Ave Fenix (The Phoenix) implies, the waste cooperatives are providing people with the chance to reconstruct their lives, but this time on a more secure and stable footing.
Uptake of the law
Building on the work at the cooperative level, the mayor of Canelones has launched a city task force that brings together representatives from across all departments to tackle the issue of waste management at a larger scale. The taskforce is building a new management system for dealing with the waste from large enterprises that also creates opportunities for formal work and social inclusion of informal recyclers. Similarly, Montevideo, where the majority of informal waste collectors live in chronic poverty, is now implementing the Packaging Law at a larger scale. The PEI is working on a national assessment of five of the country's territorial units (departamentos) to assess the extent to which new management systems are being taken up and how they can be improved using the experience in Canelones as a practical example of how the law can be used to tackle poverty and social inclusion. The government of Uruguay is aware that it will take time to apply and develop the Packaging Law across the whole country. It will require active engagement on the part of local and municipal level authorities, and will also need to be sensitive the local context. As Jimenz Perez, PEI National Coordinator, notes their work has demonstrated how the cooperatives model is not a panacea for all of the communities working in the informal waste sector, many of whom have not only suffered from the effects of chronic poverty for many years but are also afflicted by illness and alcoholism. Jorge Rucks, National Director of the Environment, notes that the number of waste workers engaged in cooperatives is still very small given the scale of the problem in Uruguay, and that there is still much work to be done. However, for him, the strength of PEI's approach is that it brings work on policy down into tangible results on the ground. "PEI has helped bring down our political statements, our policies, to transform them into something real and concrete," he says.
For Jorge Rucks there is also the longer term significance of PEI's work in the country. The initiative has forged new links between the different government departments and agencies in ways that they have struggled to achieve in the past. "PEI has been very important to achieve articulation within state agencies because we, as a government, have tried to find ways to break the partial vision that one department is responsible for the social aspects, another for health, another for the environment." The experience of working collectively on waste management has shown the advantages of pooling budgets to generate benefits across different social, economic and environmental challenges. As a result of the work on waste management the Ministry of Social Development has agreed a six-fold budget increase to support the integration of poverty and environment into its development policies, including that of waste management, over the next five years (from $350,000 in 2010 to $2.15 million in 2014). The decision marks a significant shift in the government's approach and a commitment to ensuring that the connections between poverty alleviation and environmental protection are brought to the forefront of national policy-making. The Office of Planning and Budgets (OPP), which holds the purse strings for all ministries, is now so convinced of a more integrated approach that it has scaled up its work on strengthening the linkages between poverty and environment into its planning process. An additional 10 staff positions have been established and national funds have been earmarked to develop the work across different sectors. Gabriel Labbate, regional manager of the PEI, considers that the organizational changes signify a longer term commitment to tackling the interface between poverty reduction and environmental protection "the reorganization of a key unit in the budget ministry will mean that it will be the one able to continue the work long in to the future".
Modelling the just transition
Around the world, governments are gearing up to make the shift to greener economies. It is their labour forces who make that transition possible, but all too often those workforces are invisible or under-represented. By exposing the essential role that waste collectors play in the recycling cycle and using existing legal frameworks to protect those workers, the government of Uruguay has helped to model what a fair and positive transition looks like in practice. Let the approach be an example to the rest of the world.
In May, hundreds of key decision makers, businesses and representatives of intergovernmental organizations and civil society will gather in Nairobi for UNEA-2 at the United Nations Environment Programme headquarters in Nairobi. The assembly will be one of the first major meetings since the adoption of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and the Paris Climate Agreement. The resolutions passed at UNEA-2 will set the stage for early action on implementing the 2030 Agenda, and drive the world towards a better, more just future.