The global plastics crisis has reached alarming heights, littering beaches, killing marine life and choking our cities. In Ghana, we would be drowning in a sea of plastic without informal waste pickers who collect, sort and recycle a significant amount of plastic – 18% of the total municipal waste generated in Accra Metropolitan Area (AMA), saving the metropolitan authority some ¢25 million in annual operational cost.

But waste pickers provide these essential services in challenging conditions –- at unsafe dump sites, without proper protection and with no logistical support – and that needs to change. The national government and other non-governmental stakeholders in the solid waste management sector need to recognize the essential role waste pickers are playing in the recycling sector and in keeping Ghana clean.

There is no doubt that informal waste pickers are major players in the recovery and reuse of plastic materials in Ghana. Not only do they create an estimated 20,000 – 35,000 jobs for themselves but, as environmental workers, they also help improve the environment and public health, ensure a constant supply of recovered materials to recycling companies, expand the life-span of landfill sites, minimise greenhouse gas emissions and limits the amount of plastics that end up in the ocean. A study by WIEGO also reveals that two waste-picker organisations in the Tema enclave save our environment about 1,737.55 t CO2 eq. of carbon emissions yearly. 

Waste pickers in Ghana need to be recognised for their specialty areas and wide variety of knowledge and services. “Kaya-borlas”, for example, are the oldest informal waste pickers in Ghana involved in house-to-house collection of municipal solid waste. “Taxi-borla” operators are often seen on the streets of major cities and provide important niche waste management services, particularly in low-income neighbourhoods. There are also the “fathers of bottles” (totse), who collect glass and bottles to sell for income. Landfill pickers recover tonnes of plastics, metals and cardboard from the waste stream and sell them to recycling companies and scrap dealers. 

Integrating waste pickers into official policy needs to start with better statistics. It is difficult to give the exact figure of pickers in Ghana. It is believed about 600 taxi-borla collectors operate in the Accra Metropolitan area while about 500 pickers with diverse ethnic backgrounds work at the Kpone Landfill. Due to the informal nature of their activities, these waste pickers are rarely captured in national statistics. They are officially ignored, yet the work they do contributes immensely to improving environmental and public health.

Waste pickers are the best option for tackling waste collection in underserved and difficult to reach communities. Taxi-borla operators are estimated to collect and dispose about 720 tonnes of solid waste a day, representing 47% of the total daily waste collection in the Accra Metropolitan Area (AMA) compared to 734 tonnes (48%) collected by formal waste service providers. Their smaller vehicles “Borla King” allow them to access these communities. Besides, most of them are local dwellers and therefore have better understanding of the waste management needs of the communities they serve. Comparatively, they are also regular in picking waste and flexible with their service fees, which is important for low-income communities. 

Given the important role waste pickers play in our society, it is thus unfortunate that these workers are continually looked down upon. Their work is often stigmatised as dirty, and taxi-borla operators are often harassed for operating in unauthorised areas. New policies could change this and make pickers’ work easier and more accepted by sensitising Ghanaians on the need to recognise waste pickers as environmental workers.

Although new policies take note of waste pickers’ contributions, more needs to be done. Ghana’s new National Plastic Management Policy does aim to integrate informal waste pickers into the circular economy. However, it is not the integration of the pickers per se that is required, but rather the improvement in the conditions of their work. By recognising the pickers, the policy gives legitimacy to their activities as important environmental service providers, just like other formal stakeholders along the waste value chain. An integration model that improves the conditions of informal waste pickers’ work is one that is built on their grassroot associations.  

In order for waste pickers to benefit fully from integration into the waste management system, they will need support in the form of training in new technologies and systems, adequate compensation for their services through contracts, legal protection that ensure pickers’ access to plastic materials, infrastructure such as sorting centres, social protection and representation in policy fora that relate to their work.

Inclusive plastic waste management cannot be created without the active participation of marginalised waste pickers in the policy deliberations and future actions that will ensue from the policy. One institutional pathway of achieving this is the establishment of a multi-stakeholder platform that is meaningfully represented by waste pickers to oversee the implementation of the plastic policy. Through such a platform they can better articulate their needs and influence future actions that will bear on their livelihoods – and, at the same time, help create a cleaner, more environmentally friendly Ghana for all.