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Waste pickers play an important role in waste management in Kenya. They not only help to keep towns and cities clean, they also play a big role in the recycling process.

In 2019, the Kenya Association of Manufacturers recovered over 6,000 metric tonnes of plastic for recycling. This would not have been possible without the work of refuse handlers. There is, however, not enough data to quantify the contribution of waste picking to waste management.

With a population of five million, Nairobi is estimated to generate between 2,000 and 4,000 tonnes of waste daily. Combined, the cities of Nairobi, Mombasa, and Kisumu generate 10,000 tonnes of trash each day, with a significant portion being handled by waste pickers.

Waste pickers in Kenya fall into two main categories — those that are part of the urban formal waste management labour force and those working in the informal economy. The formal workers are either employed by county governments or consist of licenced and unlicensed private operators that serve homes and commercial facilities. The waste they collect is transported to commissioned dumpsites where sorting takes place. Formal refuse handlers work in a coordinated manner. They enjoy a regular income and other benefits, including membership in unions that agitate for their welfare. They, however, receive a minimum wage and often fall into the category of lower cadre earners in both the public and private sector. It is projected that there are close to 100,000 formal waste pickers in Kenya.

On the other hand, the existence of an informal waste picking economy is historically linked to poverty and is mostly associated with vulnerable groups such as street families and slum dwellers, many of them women and children. Because of the informal nature of their work, their exact number is unknown. These workers collect garbage from the streets, bins, markets, and from waste transfer stations as well as from dumpsites. They are rarely part of welfare groups. Where such exist, they tend to be cartels that benefit the leaders at the expense of members.

It is projected that there are close to 100,000 formal waste pickers in Kenya.

In addition, there are cases where informal waste pickers are exploited by the larger society. Such exploitation comes in the form of work without pay in places such as municipal markets. In 2019, Clean Up Kenya, a lobby group, documented cases in Kibra, Dagoretti and Otiende, all in Nairobi, where sections of the informal business community are engaged in this abuse.

A good case study of the informal waste picking economy is Langata Tegemeo, a group of about 50 youths who serve over 500 households in Kijijini slums, Southlands. The group collects waste from each household at a fee of KSh20 per week and takes it to a government-allocated waste transfer station.

They frequently receive donations in the form of protective gear and work equipment from well-wishers, including politicians. In return, they engage in voluntary street waste picking activities, not just in the slum but also in the affluent neighbourhoods of Langata.

Such groups exist in most informal settlements where government waste management services are lacking. They are not recognised by the government. There was, however, an attempt to provide some form of subsidy in 2018 when a number of manufacturers teamed up to establish a fund that was supposed to increase recycling by doubling the price of certain kinds of plastics. Regrettably, the scheme is yet to benefit the waste pickers as they lack access to the said manufacturers.

Another under-appreciated form of waste picking labour is provided by street families. According to the 2019 Kenya Population and Housing Census, 20,000 people live on streets in Kenya. Some of these homeless people pick plastic bottles and scrap metal for sale to brokers, who then sell them to recyclers at a profit.

Another waste picking initiative worth mentioning is Flipflopi, which describes itself as “a movement for change with a mission to end single-use plastic and lead a plastic-reuse revolution”. In 2017, Flipflopi made a boat from ten tonnes of plastic picked by volunteers from the beaches. The boat sailed along the East African coast in 2019 to raise awareness of the global plastics problem, earning Kenya international praise.

Some of these homeless people pick plastic bottles and scrap metal for sale to brokers, who then sell them to recyclers at a profit.

Thousands of clean-ups are conducted every year in Kenya, recovering hundreds of tonnes of refuse from streets, rivers, and communities. While many are grassroots initiatives, Clean Up Kenya is among organisations that recruit nationally for clean-ups.

Lastly, we have waste pickers who work on dumpsites. There is at least one commissioned dumpsite in each of the 47 counties, the largest being the Dandora dumpsite in Nairobi.

The landfill was commissioned in the late seventies and is still operational despite being declared full in 2001. Located in a poor neighbourhood, the Dandora dumpsite receives almost all of the city’s household, commercial and municipal waste.

Discussions on the proposed decommissioning the dump have been ongoing for the last twenty years with little success. Despite the dumpsite being an environmental and health hazard, it is estimated that between 3,000 and 6,000 waste pickers and their families depend on it for a livelihood. Many work without protective gear, thus exposing themselves to dangerous chemicals which have a negative impact on their health. According to a study commissioned by the United Nations Environment Programme, high concentrations of heavy metals such as lead and mercury were found in children living near the dumpsite.

Stanley Didi, a coordinator at Shepherd CBO, and a former street boy, says: “We believe the government has committed a crime against the waste picking community and the people of Dandora.”

The dumpsite is easily accessible to anyone, including children. Vicious gangs and cartels control operations at the dumpsite. They dictate who is to pick what, where and when. Sometimes riots and fights erupt whenever trucks bring in “lucrative” garbage.

While, there is no data available on the amount of recyclable waste salvaged from the dumpsite, it is assumed that a sizeable part of the 6,000 tonnes of plastic recovered in 2019 came from Dandora.

Some dumps are however better coordinated. A good example is the Ngong dumpsite in Kajiado County, which has since been closed due to environmental concerns. At its peak, it used to receive 50 to 100 tonnes of waste daily.

“We believe the government has committed a crime against the waste picking community and the people of Dandora.”

Pickers had divided themselves into groups, with each group allowed onto the dumpsite based on a daily roster, with women-only days also foreseen. This coordination helped reduce conflicts among the pickers. The workers had a welfare group that supported about 200 members. There was a playground for children who accompanied their mothers to work, and they were not allowed on the dumpsite.

Kenya is yet to fully appreciate the important role waste picking contributes to waste management. The existing waste management laws do not acknowledge the role of waste pickers despite the fact that a large percentage of the close to 10 million tonnes of waste produced annually are processed by waste pickers.

Most of these workers live in extreme poverty, many without accommodation. There is need to incorporate them into national and county waste management plans and also involve them in decision making which could include supporting efforts to establish a national waste picking movement to advance the rights of this essential labour force.