Mapping Brazilian waste pickers’ risks and their responses to climate change

Waste pickers play a crucial role in many cities, reducing urban waste and mitigating greenhouse gas emissions in the process. A recent study looks at the impact climate change has on the lives and livelihoods of these essential workers.

Sonia Dias's picture
Blog by 
Sonia Dias
Sonia Dias is a waste specialist for Women in Informal Employment: Globalizing and Organizing (WIEGO)
04 January 2024
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The transition to a predominantly urban world
A series of blogs and interviews designed to share the experiences of community leaders, professionals, researchers and government from the global South
Garbage collects in a stream under a bridge. In the background, cars are parked in front of shops and homes.

Garbage and waste in Igarapé do Franco, a water course in the west of Manaus, Brazil. Most of the city's waste is discharged into its watercourses and climate events such as flooding impacts waste pickers’ livelihoods (Photo: IMF Photo/Raphael Alves, via Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 DEED)

Waste pickers operate in most cities in the global South, providing solid waste management for residents and businesses. We know the benefits they bring – not only collecting solid waste at source and separating recyclables – their activities can improve land use, preserve and extend green areas, improve water courses and prevent floods. They also facilitate innovative energy systems such as those using biogas, and mitigate greenhouse gas emissions.

But what was less well understood was how climate change was impacting waste pickers’ homes and livelihoods. This was the focus of our national research which also included a deep dive in three Brazilian cities: Manaus (Amazonas), Salvador (Bahia) and Belo Horizonte (Minas Gerais).

Mapping adaptation and coping strategies

WIEGO, in collaboration with the Urban Institute at the University of Sheffield (UK), led an exploratory climate change mapping with waste pickers. This set out to understand their perspectives on climate change, to map impact on earnings, work routines and health, and to draw in their knowledge and preparedness regarding adaptation and coping strategies.

In addition, the project explored the extent of support from key government and other stakeholders, and what resources would be needed to cope with increased climate change impacts (the focus of the second blog).

Fieldwork ran from September 2022 to March 2023. We conducted a national survey with organised and non-organised workers. In addition, workers were engaged through structured and semi-structured interviews and participatory focus group discussions.

These interviews included waste pickers from different regions and work sites, including dumpsites. We also held interviews with city officers and NGO and private sector representatives in all regions surveyed. Some in-person survey interviews were conducted at two waste picker events on climate-change impacts.

And finally, a document review phase compiled city profiles for the three conurbations covered.

What the research told us

Of the waste pickers surveyed 58% were women; and of those 84% belonged to a cooperative, 56% worked regularly collecting materials on the street, and 27% reported living in areas of risk. Cooperatives were the primary place of work for 66% although many alternated this with working at home and in the streets.

Non-organised waste pickers reported higher rates of living in areas of risk (40%), and significantly higher rates (80%) of this group collecting recyclables on the streets.

Perceptions and knowledge

Most of those surveyed (83%) knew about climate change – mainly from television (34%), and events, such as meetings and workshops (30%).

Almost all interviewees (98%) reported that climate change was an important issue for waste pickers’ lives and work. In particular, heatwaves were identified as impacting their health, wellbeing and productivity, and thus decreasing their earnings. Droughts and floods were also mentioned. 

Answers to open-ended questions showed waste pickers’ multidimensional understanding of climate change, ranging from its global nature to more local experiences in communities and neighbourhoods.

One waste picker from the state of Pernambuco highlighted: “From my point of view, [climate change is] when everything is different with the weather. During the rainy season it doesn’t rain. Then the rain is very heavy [with] very strong storms, unseasonably cold weather, these are the climate changes.

“We know that climate impacts are getting worse every day... Because of our work, we are the doctors of the environment. But we need to make [the environment] healthier and, for that, we need to work together.”

Experiences and impacts of climate change

The vast majority of waste pickers (91%) had experienced one or more climate change-related events in the past year – with 85% experiencing abnormal heat or heatwaves, and 39% reporting being exposed to flash flooding. Over half said flash floods had reduced their ability to move around the city.

A female waste picker leader from the state of Bahia described the effects of excessive heat: “The heat is sometimes unbearable. Being inside a shed, which has a zinc roof, affects everyone. Those who have high blood pressure or low blood pressure, it affects them more immediately. They start to sweat and they get dizzy... there is no water that reduces this heat.”

Vulnerability

Waste pickers believe factors such as sex, age, state of health, place of work and integration within existing networks of support, all influence their vulnerability. However, they diverge in identifying which of these matters most. In the survey, 31% of respondents claimed that non-organised workers are the most impacted, while 23% were concerned about older waste pickers, and 18% about women.

Impacts

The focus groups shed light on the impacts of heatwaves and flash floods on organised waste pickers, including effects on physical wellbeing, individual and collective work dynamics, and collective productive assets.

Waste pickers working outdoors are exposed to all weather conditions and suffer directly from the impacts of floods and heat. Waste pickers who work in closed environments or cooperatives suffer from poor air circulation and air quality, overheating and lack of thermal comfort, and increased exposure to pathogenic organisms.

Many waste pickers reported dehydration, heatstroke and fatigue due to increased temperatures – not only during severe heatwaves.

Working during extreme wet weather events and flash floods increases exposure to health risks and infectious disease, lowers workers’ immunity and requires more physical effort. It also means getting to their workplace is difficult. Work equipment such as scales and compressors may be damaged or lost, and in periods of heavy rainfall, paper and cardboard can become damaged reducing its value.

Climate change compounds pre-existing challenges related to workplace infrastructure. In the focus group interviews, waste pickers outlined the changes needed to climate-proof the warehouses they use for processing the waste. Adequate and decent workplace infrastructure and equipment determines the degree at which climate change impacts waste pickers’ health, wellbeing, productivity and earnings.

Adaptation and coping strategies

Waste pickers were asked to detail adaptation and coping strategies for any events they had experienced in the past year (see the table below).

Climate event Number of respondents Adaptation/coping strategy Percentage of respondents identifying this strategy
Heat waves 79 Increase water intake 41%
Use fans 21%
Change work hours 21%
Use sunscreen 14%
Adapt clothing 12%
Flash floods 36 Use rain protection strategies/equipment 44%
Stop working 42%
Change commute to work 11%
Infectious disease 33 Disseminate public health campaigns 33%
Stop working 33%
Visit doctor/health centre 18%
Improve hygiene and cleaning 18%
Mudslides 8 Alert people to leave homes based on public warning alerts 50%
Do nothing 38%
Stop working 13%

These suggest the predominance of individual or private adaptation and coping strategies. These tend to be reactive and ad hoc, with limited impact on the drivers of vulnerability such as poverty, poor services and deteriorating infrastructure.

Individual responses often relate to the need to maintain continuity while working around the climate change event. Collective responses, in contrast, may take a more preventive approach. Some strategies relate to dealing with reduced earnings, which result from hours of work lost or from the decrease in the value of collected materials.

Little has been said about programmes of support for waste pickers in these Brazilian cities, so the second blog will focus on what is needed – and importantly what needs to change.