MANILA, Philippines – Even before the crack of dawn, the day’s work already begins for Riza Santoyo, as she pedals a bicycle with a light blue metal cart along relatively empty roads in Quezon City.
To save time, the 34-year-old mother brings her four young children along her usual route. She would drop off her two older girls, aged 12 and 10, at school, and watch over her 6-year-old daughter and 4-year-old son while working.
Along Timog Avenue, she spots trash bags by the roadside and immediately goes to work. The bags are often filled with mixed wastes, but she expertly digs in and collects those with value: discarded plastic bottles, empty aluminum cans, cardboard, paper, and some electronics and metal scrap.
She loads them next to her kids in the cart and moves on to the next bags. She has to work swiftly, before the city’s garbage trucks arrive and haul what could be her earnings for the day.
Santoyo is one of thousands of Filipinos whose lives are intricately tied with others’ refuse. Whether collecting from the streets or scavenging in landfills, waste pickers sort and recover valuable scrap, such as recyclable plastics, and sell them to junk dealers for a living. As a result, these materials are returned to the loop instead of overcrowding landfills or, worse, leaking into soils and waterways.
In the face of a global plastic waste problem, it is a significant contribution. Yet waste workers in the Philippines – many of them women – are extremely undervalued and generally absent in solid waste management plans. Women waste pickers like Santoyo are even twice as vulnerable, burdened with uneven domestic responsibilities and fewer access to economic opportunities that could lift them out of poverty.
While exact regional and national figures are elusive, it is estimated that there are 20 million waste pickers around the world, including women and children. In countries with flawed solid waste management systems, the task of collecting, sorting, and diverting recyclables from dumps often falls on their shoulders.
Their work exposes them to serious risks, such as injuries, toxic chemicals, and diseases from handling wastes, yet they earn very little and remain at the bottom of the recycling chain.
In July 2000, more than 200 waste pickers died after a towering heap of garbage in the Payatas dumpsite in Quezon City collapsed and then burst into flames. The tragedy was seen as a catalyst for the passage of the Ecological Solid Waste Management Act or Republic Act (RA) No. 9003, which prohibited open dumps and laid down rules and regulations on proper segregation, collection, treatment, and disposal of solid waste.
More than two decades later, the implementation of the law leaves much to be desired. Among its main provisions is the mandatory waste segregation at source, but lax and inconsistent efforts by local governments have led to growing volumes of mixed wastes still ending up in landfills and illegal dumps over the years.
This is the gap that informal waste pickers fill, said Sonia Dias, a sociologist and waste expert from Brazil, who works with the global network Women in Informal Employment: Globalizing and Organizing (WIEGO).
“They are the backbone of solid waste management in terms of the service they provide to cities, but also for the industry at the value chain,” she said. Without their work, the recycling industry will not have the materials they need for manufacturing, she added.
Local governments also spend millions of pesos for garbage collection, transport, and disposal. By segregating wastes and recovering recyclables, waste pickers are essentially “subsidizing” governments with their unpaid service, Dias said.
Outside the margins
The National Solid Waste Management Commission (NSWMC) itself underscored how the informal waste sector was “left out” in the solid waste management law.
In its implementing rules and regulations, RA 9003 prohibits “unauthorized removal of recyclable material intended for collection by authorized persons,” making waste recovery by the informal sector an illegal practice.
A national framework plan crafted by the NSWMC for informal waste workers in 2008 recommended better support and access for waste reclaimers, as well as the improvement of their work and living conditions. While some local governments have made efforts to formalize waste pickers in their solid waste management plans, many continue to operate on or outside the margins.
After collecting materials across the city all morning, Santoyo stations herself at a sidewalk along NIA Road, across the stretch of slum houses where her family lives.
Other waste pickers living in Barangay Pinyahan are there, too. Their metal carts brim with sacks of PET (polyethylene terephthalate) bottles, soft drink cans, and cardboard. There, they would spend the next few hours further sorting and “cleaning” what they had collected – which could increase price per kilogram – before selling them to a nearby junk shop.
The process involves deftly cutting and removing plastic labels from PET bottles. Bottle caps, which are made of a harder type of plastic called high density polyethylene (HDPE), are also removed and placed with other HDPE products such as bottles of shampoo and liquid detergent. Cans of soft drinks are crushed under their feet.
Waste pickers often work without gloves, boots, or any protective gear. With many households and businesses still not practicing segregation at source, they would often have to rummage through rotting food, used diapers, and torn-up sachets to collect recyclables. They would sometimes get injured from shards of broken glass and discarded needles mixed with the rest of the garbage.
On a good day, Santoyo earns at least P300 (roughly $5); on other days, less than P100 (roughly $2). One particular day, she received P330 from the junk dealer in exchange for nearly 60 kilos of bottles and cans. She would have to divide the day’s earnings for the family’s meals and other needs, as well as school supplies for her kids.
She has done this work for more than half her life, when she started helping her father at 15 years old. She had taken odd jobs since, but returned to waste picking in 2009 after her husband was laid off from his work at a construction site.
Then, in 2020, COVID-19 struck, and she was forced to stop collecting. Out of work, she found herself begging on the streets. She was taken in by authorities twice.
“I see my children crying out of hunger, so what am I to do?” she said. “They wouldn’t allow us back to the streets to work.”
Women left behind
Santoyo returned to waste picking when quarantine measures were relaxed in 2021. Her husband also found work as a tricycle driver.
It’s a story shared by many women waste workers. While their husbands can take on other jobs, women either are left behind to work with waste, just choosing to do so. The flexible hours allow them to still look after the children and manage the household while bringing additional money in for their families’ needs.
Even in waste work, women are at a disadvantage.
“Usually, men are the ones tapped for opportunities in formal waste work,” said Anj Aguilos of EcoWaste Coalition. Research by the coalition showed unequal opportunities between men and women waste workers, with women having less access to skills, training, and capital to earn more from working with waste.
Men can also be employed by local governments as garbage truck drivers and haulers. Women, on the other hand, can sometimes be hired as street sweepers, but regular jobs come few and far between.
“What we see is this kind of scenario in which women are faced with overlapping vulnerabilities: the vulnerability of being a waste picker and because they are women,” Dias said. “If waste is invisible work, and waste pickers even more so, the connections between gender and waste has always been invisible.”
Since young children are often with their working mothers, they eventually learn the trade themselves. Santoyo’s 10-year-old daughter Kat* accompanies her on most days and helps in preparing the recyclables to be sold to the junk shop.
But the mother is determined not to let her children follow in her and their grandparents’ footsteps. She recalled how she almost lost Kat to a worm infection when her daughter was two months old.
“The doctors told me that I most likely got it from garbage, that I could have passed it on to her while I was breastfeeding,” she said.
Exposure to dangers
Despite goals of waste avoidance and volume reduction under the solid waste management law, the Philippines continues to produce an ever-growing volume of garbage.
The Department of Environment and Natural Resources projected that the country would produce 23.61 million metric tons of waste by 2025 – equivalent to over 3,000 garbage dump trucks per day. The bulk is expected to come from Metro Manila and Calabarzon.
Today, most of the trash produced and collected in Metro Manila ends up in a sanitary landfill in Rodriguez (commonly known as Montalban) town in Rizal province, around an hour from the metro. Living near the facility is a community of about 1,000 families that have no access to electricity and water, and rely on whatever they can scavenge from the landfill to survive.
Waste pickers there would spend hours hunched over, working under intense heat both from the sun and methane from the mounds of trash. It’s a dangerous game of steering clear of huge dump trucks and bulldozers while scavenging, often competing with each other for the most valuable scrap.
Aside from plastics and metal scrap, they also retrieve discarded food that can be “recycled” into “pagpag,” referring to leftovers that are “dusted off” to be eaten.
Those working in landfills face the same dangers as the itinerant collectors on the streets, but are more exposed to toxic cocktails of chemicals and gases from the trash heap.
Studies have shown that exposure to landfills and dumpsites can harm human health and cause a slew of illnesses, from skin diseases to respiratory and gastrointestinal problems. Plastics can break down into microplastics and leach hazardous chemicals into the environment, which can affect fertility and reproductive functions, among others.
Elisa Jatulan knows this danger well. In 2020, she lost her three-month-old baby due to complications after she continued to work at the landfill even when she was already six months into her pregnancy.
“The baby had complications because of our scavenging work. The smell is just too much. Chemicals are just being dumped there,” said the 37-year-old mother.
“I have thought of stopping,” she said, “but I have no choice. This is our only means to live.”
Other women waste pickers in this landfill have made the same tough choice. Lolita Pamintuan, 54, was still scavenging and hauling scraps at the dump even when she was already at full term of her pregnancy.
“I was picking wastes when I started going into labor, so my husband and I simply went home,” she recalled.
A month after giving birth, Pamintuan returned to work at the landfill.
Chance for recognition
Given their contribution as an invisible yet crucial workforce, informal waste workers should be recognized as part of the country’s solid waste management system, said Marian Ledesma, Greenpeace Philippines campaigner.
“The people don’t realize that they are right there in the middle of the value chain, and without them, so many parts of the system will also be affected,” she said.
There are glimmers of hope. Last March, representatives of 175 countries, including the Philippines, endorsed a landmark resolution at the UN Environment Assembly to address the full cycle of plastics and craft an international legally binding agreement by the end of 2024 to end plastic pollution.
For the first time, informal waste workers were recognized for their “significant contribution” in the collecting, sorting, and recycling of plastics.
In the Philippines, an opportunity for a similar recognition and formalization could be in the Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) Act, which lapsed into law last July, said Ledesma.
The EPR law amends the current policy on solid waste management, requiring large companies to recover the plastic packaging wastes they produce.
“It would be good for the NSWMC to find ways to have the producer responsibility organizations connect with waste pickers,” she said. “If they were part of the formal system or at least were being recognized, they would have an assurance that they can still have access to the waste.”
“They could help in that one step before sending wastes to material recovery facilities, or even work in the MRFs themselves,” Ledesma added.
Uplifting the lives of informal waste workers, however, will not rest on improved policies on solid waste management alone, but also on structural changes, such as better access to education, said WIEGO’s Dias.
“Poverty breeds itself because we are not tackling the structural problems in our society,” she said. “For each waste picker that may be benefited by policies, there are hundreds of new ones entering the field. So, it’s like this kind of vicious circle.”
Whether meaningful change will come soon for informal waste workers remains to be seen. For Santoyo and other women waste pickers, the work continues, not for them, but for their children.
“I’m working hard because I want them to get a proper education,” Santoyo said. “I don’t want them to inherit this work.” – Rappler.com
*Name has been changed for privacy
All quotes in Filipino have been translated to English. Reporting for this story was supported by the Internews’ Earth Journalism Network.