Residents recycle junk in a waste disposal dump in Accra, Ghana

Strengthening urban waste management by empowering waste pickers in Ghana

Blog Cities, Sustainable Growth and Cities that Work

Waste pickers in Ghana work in precarious conditions, without any formal contracts or social insurance. Recognising their role through policy can bring them financial stability and give them a more prominent role in the waste management system, increasing overall efficiency.

Twenty million waste pickers worldwide are crucial in segregating waste, particularly in sub-Saharan Africa. Despite challenging working conditions, they recycle and dispose of a significant portion of the 169,119 tonnes of waste produced in the sub-region everyday.

In Kenya, the Dandora dumpsite, covering 70 acres, receives 1,100 tonnes of solid waste daily from Nairobi's inhabitants. Approximately 3,000 waste picker families depend on the dumpsite for their livelihoods, serving as the unofficial recycling machinery. They earn their living by sorting through waste bins and disposal sites for reusable materials in the value chain. These waste picking activities directly or indirectly benefit the environment and resource development.

Marginalisation of waste pickers in official policy and practice

Without any formal relationships with city authorities or scrap traders, these informal workers are often overlooked during policy decision-making. They are sometimes harassed, disrespected, and marginalised. Figure 1 highlights some concerns of waste pickers in Accra, Ghana. City officials, instead, often view these essential service providers as fraudsters who sustain their activities without paying taxes, create unfair competition, and weaken unions and formal regulatory structures.

Figure 1: Some concerns of waste pickers operating in Accra, Ghana

Figure 1 - Some concerns of waste pickers operating in Accra, Ghana

The solid waste management sector in the sub-region is neither taxed nor monitored, although it comprises a considerable portion of the region’s economy. Its main contribution to the economy is in resource conservation. Members in their thousands, who constitute a considerable chunk of the region’s urban poor, extract volumes of recyclables that would otherwise take up space at the few landfill sites available. These extracted resources are reintegrated into production and manufacturing processes, conserving fresh resources. And yet, despite this critical role, the sector remains deeply marginalised.

The issue of marginalisation and its effects is well-documented in the literature. Kansanga et al. (2020) suggest that the waste sector has the potential to create sustainable employment opportunities that have yet to be fully realised (Figure 2 presents the three stages of the informal recycling system where labour market opportunities are). Unfortunately, policy elites, including those who promote sustainable cities, economic insecurity, lack of investment, inadequate training, and a lack of cooperation with city authorities, all hinder progress.

Figure 2: Stages of the informal recycling system in Accra

Figure 2 - Stages of the informal recycling system in Accra, Ghana

Challenges of the waste pickers in Ghana

In Ghana, waste pickers are crucial to the waste management system. They work alongside formal agents to protect the environment from potentially harmful materials. These waste pickers can identify and separate valuable items, such as electrical goods, from others, and sell them to prospective buyers. Yet, because waste picking is an informal activity, it is difficult to accurately measure the amount of collected waste by each individual.

Accra, a city that generates 2,800 tonnes of waste daily, containing 60% recyclable materials, lacks proper waste source segregation. However, 3,000 to 5,000 waste pickers who manage 50% of the daily waste generated at no cost to the city authorities should not be disregarded. An officer at the Adepa landfill pointed to a heap of waste and remarked:

"These mountains of waste are treasures […] the size of the waste workers in Accra is huge, but those here can only pick up less than half of the recyclable materials dumped. With political will and planning, the sector can be upgraded to reduce waste and create jobs to reduce the youth bulge."

During a Business Forum in Accra, a Deputy Minister of Trade and Industry emphasised the significant role of the informal sector. The forum's theme was "Formalising the Informal Sector - Practical Steps to Promote Local Economic Development". The Minister stated that the informal sector contributed GH¢ 73.3 billion to Ghana's GDP in 2017, representing 28.6% of the country's total GDP. This shows the potential for growth in the informal sector.

While waste pickers contribute to the recycling economy, they work without formal contracts or social insurance. They often work in precarious and hazardous conditions without safety measures. A waste picker captured this reality in a comment:

"[…] Plastics fetch the best rates, but sorting waste is hazardous. We open sacks, and there are soiled sanitary napkins in newspapers, human excreta in polythene, shards of glass, syringes, or nails. We cut ourselves and develop rashes and infections. Rotten food makes us sick. But we have no pension, recognition, or medical facilities."

Challenging invisibility, regulating inclusivity

Waste picking is a practice that often goes unnoticed, even though Accra alone has more than 5,000 workers. Recognising their role helps city authorities understand that informality does not mean a lack of structure or laws. Previous studies have shown that better organisation can improve the informal sector's ability to advocate for their interests. Moreover, creating sustainable income opportunities can bring financial stability to waste pickers and give them a more prominent role in the waste management system, leading to greater efficiency.

In Ghana, formally recognising and supporting waste pickers can create opportunities for others to get involved. This could lead to new entrepreneurial endeavours to address waste and create jobs. According to WIEGO (2020), Kpone waste pickers were able to remove around 800 tonnes of recyclable materials from landfills each year, preventing the emission of 24,371 tonnes of CO2 in 2019, which is a significant environmental benefit.  

Organising the informal sector would significantly reduce the waste removal expense for authorities. KMA-WMD's annual report shows that the Greater Kumasi Metropolitan Area incurred a total waste collection cost of GHȼ 3,800,000 in 2011. Service providers could recover GHȼ 1,400,000 from this amount through waste charges for house-to-house collection and pay-as-you-dump from communal sites. The remaining GHȼ 2,400,000 was a subsidy the assembly (the central government) paid. In Accra, the assembly spends about one million Ghana cedis monthly on waste collection.

Waste pickers in urban Ghana are very adaptable and responsive. City authorities can play a crucial role in mobilising them and integrating them into direct source collection of waste, ensuring their right over recyclables, and guaranteeing regular access to landfills. Whatever the context of a city’s approach to waste collection, it is crucial to bear in mind that waste pickers’ issues need to be tackled by considering a combination of critical issues:

  • Waste picker protagonism (promoting the voice of waste pickers in urban governance, legitimising their collectives)
  • Drafting of comprehensive public policies designed to integrate them into the waste architecture planned through participatory processes
  • A restructuring of the recycling chain towards a more equitable distribution of gains to make the waste pickers’ organisations and livelihoods sustainable.