Fiji becomes first Pacific nation to recognise waste pickers as the world's invisible environmentalists fight to be seen – ABC News

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Fiji becomes first Pacific nation to recognise waste pickers as the world's invisible environmentalists fight to be seen
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Tikitoro's children are often made fun of and her family faces stigma and harassment daily because of her work.
For two years, she has provided for her family by sorting through rubbish to find materials that can be resold or taken to recycling facilities.
"When my children go to school, the students laugh and point at them," Tikitoro said.
"Sometimes when my co-workers go to the health centre they are told by the nurse or a doctor to go and wash themselves properly first."
Often scavenging through mountains of rubbish at landfills and sorting garbage with no protective gear, discrimination and abuse plagues informal waste pickers.
But Tikitoro and 15 other women in Fiji — many who have been waste picking for decades — have pressed for change.
Now, Fiji has become the first country in the Pacific to formally acknowledge waste pickers, and advocates are hopeful other countries in the region will follow suit.
The Pacific has long pushed for action against climate change, with its nations experiencing the brunt of rising temperatures, climbing sea levels and frequent natural disasters.
Founder and director of operations at Pacific Recycling Foundation Amitesh Deo said waste pickers "play a critical role".
"In developing countries like Fiji, we don't have resources or municipal councils, and private companies don't have the resources to go and collect all recyclables from areas and bring them to recycling facilities," Mr Deo said.
There are around 20 million waste pickers around the world who have for decades acted as de facto recycling systems in their countries.
They eliminate millions of tons of carbon dioxide yearly by diverting waste away from landfills.
But instead of being viewed as environmental heroes, they are often seen as vagrants and are largely invisible. 
In Fiji, a workshop involving the 16 women discussed the harassment they faced.
One woman spoke about repeated sexual abuse from a neighbour who thought he could walk into her house and "demand sex" because she was a waste picker, Mr Deo said.
An appropriate name was decided as the first step toward ending the stigma.
The Collection Pillars of Recycling was the name granted to the 30 workers registered by the Lautoka City Council.
Along with the new name, the registered workers will be given safety equipment, and gain access to training and bank accounts.
"There's a lot of work to be done, but at least there's a clear pathway being developed on how to empower this group," Mr Deo said.
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Kabir Arora from the Global Alliance of Waste Pickers said dignity remained at the centre of waste pickers' struggles. 
"It's not just the occupation, if you look at who the waste pickers are, they are ethnic minorities, religious minorities, people from the trans community," he told the ABC. 
"So you have people that are largely dispossessed because of historical circumstances based on whatever identity they have."
He said the big concern, particularly in societies in South Asia, is the additional stigma of the occupation being considered "the lowest of the low".
Adopting new names has been a common way to bring their work into a positive light. 
In South America, they have changed their name to "recicladores" — or recyclers — and in India they are often referred to as "green workers" or "circular economy workers", Mr Arora said. 
The Global Alliance of Waste Pickers will also move to change its name. 
"By calling themselves green workers they take claim to a wider environmental movement," Mr Arora said. 
"They have been doing this job of cleaning, maintaining and preserving the environment, and they need to be recognised in the name itself." 
Dignity is just the start in waste pickers' fight for formal recognition of the important environmental role they play. 
Countries including South Africa, Brazil and India have been implementing progressive waste picker legislation, but across the board there are still many challenges the workers face, Mr Arora said. 
Supriya has been working as a waste picker for more than 30 years. 
She used to accompany her parents to landfills when she was a child. 
Surrounded by roaming animals, they would spend long hot days wading through mountains of garbage. 
"When I was child, there were no scrap shops near our place so we would have to find a lift," Supriya said.
"Sometimes we wouldn't be able to get back and would have to walk all the way."
Decades later, Supriya is still collecting and sorting waste, but her days look very different. 
She is a member of the SWaCH cooperative in the Indian city of Pune, along with more than 3,700 self-employed waste collectors — the majority of whom are women. 
They have an arrangement with the local administration that allows them to go door-to-door collecting recyclable waste from households, restaurants and shops. 
SWaCH says it services about 800,000 households daily and recycles some 70,000 tons of waste a year. 
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"Most of the citizens are cooperating. There are bad days and there are good days," Supriya said.
"I have been able to pay for my son's education, medicine and overall support for my family."
The cooperative model has improved the livelihoods of waste pickers and bridged the gap between households and the municipal waste collection service.
The framework has been emulated across other Indian cities and exists in many parts of the world.
Although it has enabled many collectors to move away from landfills and into safer conditions, the work still lacks stability.
"Despite waste pickers giving an immense contribution to the city's management system, the entire model is based on user fees where citizens directly pay waste pickers for their daily services," Amogh Bhongale, from SWaCH's outreach team, said.
"Because it's user fees, there are no salaries paid by the government to the thousands of waste pickers. They're actually working independently as entrepreneurs."
The system also operates on short-term agreements the cooperative needs to sign with the local administration, which need to be renewed every couple of years. 
"We still have to struggle to get contracts renewed," Supriya said.
A recent report by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) into the the socio-economic conditions of waste pickers in India found that seven out of 10 workers' monthly household income was less than 10,000 Rupees ($180).
Many also still work at garbage dumps, which is considered illegal across some states and municipalities. 
Mr Bhongale said in the 1980s and early 90s, plastics hardly got a mention.
Now SWaCH has systems and projects that focus specifically on certain types of plastic waste. 
Almost half of all plastic produced globally originates from Asia and the region is responsible for more than 80 per cent of the ocean plastic waste, according to the UNDP.
In countries like India, which generates about 15 million tons of plastic waste every year, only a quarter of it is recycled.
In May, the UN approved a landmark agreement to create the world's first global plastic pollution treaty, describing it as the most significant environmental deal since the 2015 Paris climate accord.
Part of the resolution was the acknowledgement of "the significant contribution made by workers under informal and cooperative settings to collecting, sorting and recycling plastics".
It is the first time waste pickers have been recognised in an environmental resolution, which set out provisions to recognise their role. 
"We had tears in our eyes," Mr Arora said. 
"It was nothing less than a historical moment for waste pickers all over the world."
By signing the treaty, countries have to showcase that waste pickers are included in plastic recycling initiatives.
Mr Arora said the mandate is particularly helpful for waste pickers in countries like China that find it difficult to organise the workers. 
"If countries sign the plastics treaty tomorrow, it will be a big win for the waste picker movement," he said.
Ministers and representatives from 173 countries formally adopted the UN resolution in March to start negotiations for a legally binding agreement to end plastic pollution.
Among them was Indonesia, one of the world's largest waste producers.
In Jakarta alone, residents produce some 7,000 tons of waste daily.
About 28 per cent of it is plastic waste.
Since signing the treaty, the Ministry of Environment and Forestry has announced it will aim to triple plastic waste collection by 2030. 
The ministry's waste management director, Novrizal Tahar, said "important stakeholders such as scavenger associations", will be crucial in meeting the country's targets. 
However, over at Jakarta's Bantar Gebang dump site — where more than 7,000 waste pickers make a living collecting and selling recyclables — there are concerns about what the future holds. 
Since 2008, Indonesia has had a Waste Management Law, which includes the role of "scavengers" in waste reduction and handling.
But Heri Abdullah, a waste picker who is part of the Indonesian Waste Pickers Association (IPI), said their work was not yet recognised as a formal profession.
And instead of including existing waste pickers in government plans, new workers are being hired to do the jobs.
"Local governments prefer to create a new task force, recruiting new people who are then paid and provided with facilities, rather than involving the existing waste pickers," Mr Abdullah told the ABC.
It is also difficult for them to move beyond living and working at the landfill, where recently a fire destroyed around 70 waste pickers' homes.
Mr Abdullah said many houses and offices have signs saying that "'scavengers are prohibited from entering".
Many waste pickers are also arrested for disturbing public order while they are picking and sorting garbage. 
"It's sad because we only want to collect and sort waste as mandated by the law, we don't want to steal or commit crimes or anything," he said. 
"We are not demanding anything, we just want to be officially recognised, formally, so that we will be able to bring food on the table peacefully."
The next important step for waste pickers globally is when the terms of reference for the UN plastics treaty are negotiated in Uruguay in November.
The Global Alliance for Waste Pickers is pushing for six waste picker representatives from six regions of the world to be present. 
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