Formal vs Informal Waste Collection

The problems with formal vs. informal waste management look very different

If you live in a developed nation in an urban or suburban city, you might be used to garbage day, where the city organizes to pick up the trash and recycling you produced throughout the week. Your plastic is taken away and managed, and most likely not dumped into the open. This is an example of formal waste collection.

The inefficiency of informal recycling is the reason majority of the world's plastic waste comes from developing nations, not developed ones. That surprised me at first. After looking into it, it does just make sense. It's obvious that the informal waste collection sector has much opportunity for improvement.

Many rapidly growing economies like China, Indonesia, and Vietnam, don't have the waste management infrastructure they need to support their development. As a result, 60% of global mismanaged waste came from East Asian and Pacific countries in 2010.

High income countries tend to have highly efficient waste management systems, leaving nearly 0% of plastic unaccounted for. All plastic is either recycled, incinerated as energy recovery, or dumped in secure, closed landfills.

Some 0% waste mismanagement countries include those in North America, much of Europe, Australia, New Zealand, Taiwan, and UAE

As much as we often hear how terrible our landfills are, they're undoubtedly, much better than the alternative: open dumping.

Lower income countries often have more pressing matters to take care of than where their plastic goes. So although much is collected informally through loosely regulated private companies and then waste pickers after, a sizeable portion doesn't have anywhere to go. It's dumped in the open instead escapes the system. This is what we call plastic leakage.

Charts from Ocean Conservancy

After the landfill, plastic gets one more chance in informal waste collection.

It begins with the waste pickers. Many people go into landfills to pick plastic they can sell to aggregators for a living. As their income is low, they focus on the most valuable plastic that can bring in the most money. The Ocean Conservancy finds "Only about 20 percent of the municipal plastic-waste stream has enough value to incentivize waste pickers to collect it; what remains is therefore more likely to leak into the ocean."

Aggregators sort and clean larger volumes of plastic after buying off many waste pickers, and sell them upwards to recycling facilities.

The result? Waste pickers (and there are millions worldwide) work in unsafe conditions illegally picking through waste that's harmful to their health to make less than minimum wage in many cases. 80% of plastic tends to stay in poorly placed landfills (near rivers and waterways) at high risk of entering the ocean. 86% of total plastic input to oceans is from Asia. That's more than 7 million tons per year.

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