Fiji has become the first nation in the Pacific to formally acknowledge “waste pickers” — who repurpose, resell, and recycle rubbish for a living — as the environmental champions that they are, and the positive environmental benefit of their work. 

The workers — who are typically women, children, and migrants, living in poverty — work in unsafe conditions where they breathe toxic waste and lack employee rights or social security benefits. Despite removing millions of tons of carbon dioxide each year by extracting matter from landfills, they lack rightful recognition as environmental warriors and are instead often subject to slurs and slander

The acknowledgment was made at a recent council event in Lautoka, Fiji’s second-largest city.

There, 30 women were officially registered, given access to bank accounts, and provided with protective clothing, footwear, masks, and gloves. The workers, in collaboration with the city council and Pacific Recycling Foundation, Waste Recyclers Fiji, and the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, also coined a new name to replace the informal “waste pickers”: Collection Pillars of Recycling.

The idea of adopting an official name first arose during a week-long workshop, held months prior.

"The workshop was about human rights, gender, legal literacy, and financial literacy and one of the key findings in that workshop was the stigma attached to waste picking. One of the contributors to that stigma was the name ‘informal waste pickers’,” said Pacific Recycling Foundation Founder Amitesh Deo, according to the Fiji Sun.

The workshop also saw Fiji’s Department of Environment Director, Sandeep Singh, call out the workers for their vital role in Fiji’s waste management and environmental protection sectors. The country, home to 900,000 people, has an ad hoc approach to commercial waste and household recycling, with limited policy and legislation at the national level.

"Your roles complement the global measures taken towards climate adaptation and mitigation,” Singh said.

The East Asian and Pacific region is responsible for the largest generation of waste globally, with 468 million metric tons of municipal solid waste — items from households, businesses, commerce, and institutions — produced annually. Of this, around 50% ends up in landfills, 24% incinerated, and just 9% recycled. 

According to United Nations Habitat, “waste pickers” pick up 50-100% of waste in cities within low-income nations. In Jakarta, in neighboring Indonesia, the workers divert 25% of the city’s waste to productive use.

The World Bank Group explains that when “properly supported and organized,” the informal waste and recycling sector can create employment, improve local industrial competitiveness, reduce poverty, and reduce municipal spending on solid waste management and social services.


Defend the Planet

Fiji Becomes First Pacific Nation to Recognise ‘Waste Pickers’ as Recycling Heroes

By Madeleine Keck