Informal waste picking: How one woman in Cameroon is providing food for her family while empowering others

‘Mama Bouteille,’ (on the right) the Green Entrepreneur.
‘Mama Bouteille,’ (on the right) the Green Entrepreneur.

Patu Ndango Fen

Related Topics:
Business & Economics, Green Living, Plastic, Pollution, Recycling & Upcycling, Sustainability

She is called ‘Mama Bouteilles.’ Somewhere in the city of Yaoundé, Cameroon, a dynamic woman, probably in her forties, is seen pushing a huge bail of plastic bottles (known in French as ‘bouteilles’) recovered from the Mfoundi stream which cuts across the Ahala neighborhood. Assisted by her children, they spend several hours of their day collecting single-use plastic bottles which have been washed away by the rains.

A brief chat and interaction with ‘Mama Bouteille’ revealed some of the challenges faced by informal waste pickers in Cameroon, an important sector in the waste-value chain, specifically that of single-use plastic bottles. 

(Patu Ndango Fen)

Shining a light on an important population

The world today is gradually gaining consciousness on the dire need to regulate the production of single-use plastics, design more environmentally friendly options, while developing and scaling solutions to the massive legacy that plastic pollution has already created. 

This is the reason why a recent gathering of world leaders and decision-makers at the UNESCO headquarters in Paris led to an agreement that facilitate the adoption on international regulations on plastic waste management.

Without any doubt, winning the fight against plastic pollution requires a holistic approach that takes into consideration new and effectively enforced policies and legislations; innovative solutions that address the root causes (producers), sensitization campaigns to change mindsets, and multiplying/scaling valorization initiatives that shed a light on the people working on this issue at the ground level. 

In the case of the valorization strategy, there is a need to pay attention to an important group of stakeholders: the informal waste pickers. 

Informal waste pickers generally play a vital role in recovering waste materials known to have an intrinsic value from landfills, open dump sites, streets, and waterbodies. These workers are often considered invisible in society and operate under-the-radar for many people. However, they serve as an important bridge in the management of municipal solid waste such as plastic waste.

Their intervention is usually at the end of the plastics value chain where they recover discarded plastic bottles, generally in exchange for small cash payments. Some of the waste materials highly sought after by informal waste pickers include iron, aluminum, and plastics such as single-use plastic bottles among several other items. According to many local waste pickers, materials such as iron and aluminum have gained such high value, that they’ve become increasingly rare in the environment.

This is not yet the case with plastic waste, which explains why a great proportion of the over 600,000 tons of plastic waste generated annually in Cameroon can be seen polluting seemingly every corner of the environment. Despite the magnitude of the problem, however, informal waste pickers are chipping away at the problem in efforts to sustain themselves financially and clean up their environments.

The successes and challenges of informal waste picking

In Yaoundé, Mama Bouteille has been able to feed and care for her family for over six years now thanks to money she earns collecting and selling discarded single-use-plastic bottles from different areas within the city, where bottles are known to accumulate in unimaginable numbers.

She has introduced about 10 other families to the business of collecting and selling plastic bottles, an achievement which she is proud of. According to Mama Bouteille, reflecting on the number of families she has been able to successfully introduce into the informal waste picking business has been a major motivational force for her to continue working to improve the living conditions around her neighborhood.

(Patu Ndango Fen)

Unfortunately, Mama Bouteilles complained of the health and safety challenges faced by her and other informal waste pickers who generally do not have the opportunity to undergo safety trainings, nor possess the necessary personal protective equipment. The lack of appropriate equipment sometimes leads to accidents in the course of their work and to the ingestion of particles and other pollutants arising from the waste piles. She expressed concern regarding the potential health impacts of their waste picking activities and also revealed that she had sustained a fracture incurred in the course of her work. 

According to an article post by the World Bank, plastic waste not only surrounds us, but is present as microplastics in the air we breathe, inside glacial ice, in the fish we eat, in the water we drink and has been identified in human placenta by Italian researches. Another report in the journal, Environmental Science and Pollution Research, indicates that potential human health impacts of ingesting micropplastics can include asthma, obesity, respiratory disease, and cancer among others.

Despite these challenges, there are numerous other solutions that are contributing to addressing the plastic pollution present in the environment. These include recycling solutions that transform plastic waste into different marketable products such as pavement, roofing tiles, pallets, plastic straps and lumber among other things.

However, collection and recycling rates still remain very low on a global scale. According to the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, Only 9% of the plastic waste generated is recycled. This is a mind-boggling statistic which demonstrates the opportunity existing in this sector, especially for the informal waste pickers whose role in making these plastic waste available for recycling companies cannot be understated.

However, these workers require better working conditions and pay for their tremendous efforts to free our environment from plastic pollution.

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