European Waste Picker Organizing Begins

Trans-European Waste Picker Organizing Begins

By Portia Sinnott, NCRA Editor and SpringLoop Cooperative, 09/8/2015
The first European Waste Picker Meeting was held September 7 in Antwerp, Belgium. The organizers included Netherlands-based global recycling specialist Anne Scheinberg of Springloop Cooperative, Serbian innovation specialist Jelena Nesic of DTI, Pietro Luppi and Sevla Sejdic of Occhio di Riciclone (the eye of the REcyclone (OdR) and Paddy Noë of Noë Waste Measurement Consultants (NWMC), the one day informal recyclers meeting was held in cooperation and in parallel with the annual International Solid Waste Association (ISWA) conference.

The goal was to open the channels of communication between the informal recyclers and re-users and the formal solid waste establishment. This meeting was a first step and went well. At the 2016 ISWA conference in Novi Sad, Serbia, a series of panels are already planned devoted to this topic, and there will be an invitation and space for many more European waste pickers, and their Asian and Latin American and African counterparts, to attend.

Twenty-seven people participated in the waste picker meeting. Informal recyclers and reuse entrepreneurs came from Paris, France, Rome, Italy and Belgrade, Serbia plus three generations of one Hungarian family. Most informal recyclers and re-use entrepreneurs in Europe are from Roma ethnic groups – sometimes known as gypsy people. The organizations that were represented from France and Italy also have a social development and job creation mission.

Also taking part was Mr. Alphan Eröztürk, President of the Turkish EPR organization CEVKO – Environmental Protection and Packaging Waste Recovery and Recycling Trust, representing the European Extended Producer Responsablity Alliance, EXPRA. Advocates and “others” included action researchers and practitioners from Brazil and India plus ISWA Young Professionals from the US and Brazil. It was a pleasure meeting all of these people, especially translator extraordinaire Sonja Barbul of Belgrade, Serbia, who juggled seven languages using a simple mobile microphone system with individual receivers. It really helped to be able to hear clearly.

Two interrelated topics were brought up again and again and again during the meeting – lack of legal identity papers, and the right to collect, process and/or sell recyclables and reusables without fear of police harassment. Roma people in particular are frequent victims of discrimination, and, for historical and cultural reasons, are often outside of all legal systems. Picking waste gives them an honest way to support their families, but closing spaces for informal activity sometimes put them on the wrong side of new EU-stimulated waste laws.
At the same time waste management systems around Europe are becoming more and more formalized and rigid, and private sector participants of all sizes must meet certain requirements.

In some countries this creates for informal recyclers, a cascading series of double binds. In France it is possible for anyone to collect discards but selling it may be difficult depending on the jurisdiction. In Paris – but not in Montreuil, an adjacent city, reuse business people may be chased away from the market where they are displaying cleaned and repaired goods. In Hungary, bulky goods are legally imported by semi-formal traders, from richer waste streams in Austria and Italy. Even when informal re-users are given goods and furniture by their owners, they can be accused of stealing from the waste management companies, and prevented from keeping or selling the items. In Rome, pickers can have a days’ work confiscated and given to the formal service provider, or trampled and thrown back in a dustbin before their eyes.

Serbian law prohibits private collection of discards but the law is generally not enforced. One company picks up plastic from 300 businesses and gives them new plastic bags in return. Even though no money changes hands, a vehicle hauling a large load may be pulled over by the police and the driver asked for identity papers, permits or other documents to which informal entrepreneurs seldom have. The authorities may be “so nice” as to let the re-use traders go – if they leave behind a fat bribe. Storage and processing can be a serious challenge as well. In some cities, buyers pay informal recyclers less than the market price because they know they can’t complain.

The most restrictive, anti-re-use statute is in Austria, there waste management companies are paid by the ton for what they pick up and therefore consider all other activity to be stealing their money. If you have used items in your house set aside for the flea market or for giving away, these materials legally already belong to the local authority, just based on your intention.

In California discards placed in recycling carts generally belong to the jurisdiction or service provider. Everything else is up for grabs. Anyone can sell to a buy-back, donate to a non-profit, give goods away or put them out for whoever comes along. Litter belongs to whoever picks it up. Flea markets and reuse businesses may be a different story since they have to report sales to the state. (No businesses or buy-backs I am familiar with discriminate on legal status. If you know of a situation where non-residents are ill-treated in this regards, please let me know. I will not quote you.)

The report will be posted in a few months… Springloop:, and

Editor’s note: For the curious, my tasks for this project included assisting with pre-event organizing, welcoming and assisting participants, casual translation utilizing my rudimentary German – the only language the Hungarians spoke other than Hungarian and Roma, taking detailed notes and writing the draft report. I hope to take part in next year’s meeting in Serbia.

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