It is no longer news that Nigeria has an insurmountable waste problem. In a country of more than 20 million people, waste is still obscenely undermanaged.
While the general public wonders what to do with their waste on Saturday mornings, the wrath of clogged drainages, littered spaces, and flooded areas befalls the streets of Nigeria, making them largely inhabitable for its citizens. A report from the United Nations Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO) states that Nigeria produces over 32 million tonnes of waste each year, 4.7% of which is collected by the government, leaving the majority to be collected informally. These informal methods, however, are championed by local citizens, also known as ‘waste pickers’.
Informal waste pickers, infamously called Baban Bollas are known for their active contribution to Nigeria’s waste disposal situation. They move from households to dumpsites, rummaging through tons of waste and collecting recyclables. Informal means that they have no contract, no regular means of income, either work with simple mismanaged equipment, have little recognition for their labor, and are under high vulnerability.
Habibat Adamu, A 19-year-old waste picker who is often seen at the Apo Resettlement residential area located in Abuja, explains how she makes a day-to-day living by collecting waste, particularly plastic bottles. According to her estimates, she typically finds 10 bottles on the streets in a day and twice that many in household dustbins. She resells them at a price value of N30 per piece and makes up to about N2000 on good days. Habibat also mentions that most of her retailers are women who use these plastic bottles to sell drinks such as Kunun Zaki (millet drink). This ultimately allows for the reuse of the bottles obtained.
One of her ongoing challenges is being chastised by property owners while searching for recyclables. These are on of the struggles most informal waste workers face, due to the fact that Nigerian authorities do not appreciate the beneficial role of waste pickers. Hence, they are never considered in waste management policies, leaving them unprotected and at the mercy of residents who stigmatize them.
Nigerian authorities, however, don’t fully appreciate the beneficial role of waste pickers. These workers contribute to environmental sustainability by reducing waste in dumpsites and providing materials for recycling and reuse. But they are never considered when waste management policies are designed.
What does the informal waste sector offer?
Waste is currency, and according to the World Bank’s What a Waste report, about 15%-20% of the recyclable waste that is collected across developing countries comes from informal scavenging, making it an integral component of waste management.
The waste economy in Nigeria is huge and, for the most part, still operates on a linear economic model where we “take, make, use, and dispose of”. This means that raw materials are used to make products that, after their life spans, become waste and are thrown away. The growing population in Nigeria overrides on that fact alone, which lays concern for health risks, unemployment, and environmental degradation. In a bid to build a circular economy, it is only reasonable to imbibe proper management and control of waste. This should be seen as a priority and an avenue to create wealth, economic development, and an improved environment.
Also, by investing in integrating informal waste pickers into a more sustainable waste management system, we’re creating opportunities for many people to participate in improving waste disposition. Additionally, the informal waste sector also offers sustainable income opportunities that support the financial livelihood of waste pickers, which in turn significantly lowers Nigeria’s unemployment rate.
How can Nigeria invest in its informal waste sector?
- Municipalities play a key role in mobilizing the informal waste sector. The first step would be to incorporate waste pickers into the process of directly collecting waste from the source, with a claim over recyclables and a guarantee of regular access to landfills.
- There is a need to recognize the roles, and include the voices of informal waste workers in upcoming waste management policies. By doing so, informal waste workers gain recognition for the various crucial roles they play as a workforce, and can further contribute to the transition towards a circular economy.
- Other activities that can support the informal sector’s integration include; skills development, equipping them with the proper tools for their labor, and marketing to enhance labor-intensive, small-scale activities’ competitiveness. Integrating informal sector workers has the potential to significantly improve their living conditions.
Integrating informal waste workers into proper waste management systems benefits not only sustainability strategies but also increases recycling collection and social inclusion for waste pickers. It also encourages economic development toward transitioning to a circular economy.
To read about how Ecobarter is investing in informal waste workers, click here.