Cologne & Waste Pickers: The evolution of waste collection

Circular Action Director, Thierry Sanders, reflects on this year’s Plastic Waste Free World Conference & Expo and on the evolution of waste collection.

The hall of the Plastic Free World trade fair at the Kolner Messe is bustling with international visitors passing by stands of paper packaging as alternatives to plastic. Also on display are glass pots filled with colourful pellets of recycled plastics, bio resins, and biochemical replacements for plastic.

We are at the Plastic Free World trade fair in Cologne (November 2022). In the side-lines of the event are large conference rooms where experts are delivering speeches about sustainable manufacturing, sustainable textiles, sustainable retail and packaging. The event gives a glimpse of the green future of packaging and materials.

Closing the event in its final hour is a talk we participate in, on the challenges of waste collection in developing countries. Joining us are Plastic Fisher and Rivercycle, companies that collect waste from polluted rivers in Asia and Africa. Circular Action has a different approach.

Working with multinational companies like Tetra Pak, Circular Action is collecting hard to recycle materials in Vietnam and Brazil, working with waste pickers, and paying them for the material they collect via our mobile app, KOLEKT. The Brazilian/Dutch company has very few staff in Europe, the remaining 24 staff are in Vietnam and Brazil. Not only does it have an environmental goal, it also aims to increase the income of the waste pickers with whom it works.

With almost 60% of the world’s recycled materials collected by the world’s 20+ million waste pickers, it is important then that start-ups seek out a more labour-intensive approach, which avoids the use of waste trucks where all recyclables are mixed and contaminated, rendering them useless for recycling, but good for a landfill.

One of the main lessons for me personally of the event, is that we are seeing an evolution of waste collection systems world-wide. This insight was stated clearly by Claudia Bierth, MBA of Ball Packaging (the maker of aluminium cans for beer and sodas), who presented the need for the most advanced stage of waste collection with automated ‘reverse vending machines’ that return the deposit made on beverage packaging to consumers.

The evolution

This evolution is most clearly visible in developing countries, where most stages of the waste chain evolution coexist. In the ‘West’ informal collections have decreased or have been banned. This evolution of waste collection & recycling is what this article is about. And although word evolution suggests a progression over time, the stages described below often coexist within the same country.

Stage 0 – No waste collection at all [ 0% Collection rate ]
Households are left to fend for themselves. Those that have a yard or some space will usually end up burning most of their waste or throw it on a pile outside their home, usually on the banks of a river. As urbanisation takes hold in a country, however, there is simply not enough space to dump waste. With rats, stray cats and dogs this becomes a recipe for the spread of diseases in a community. Paintings and records of the Black Plague in 1330’s and 1340’s, the world’s most deadly pandemic to date, show how urbanisation combined with the lack of sewerage and waste collection caused fleas to be spread by black rats. With that worst case scenario in mind, many governments have decided to regulate waste collection as a government or municipal task. Which is all very well, assuming there is enough budget to collect all municipal solid waste and deliver it to an appropriate end destination, such as a landfill or incinerator.

Stage 1 – The Waste Picker Economy [10-30% collection rate]
The beginnings of a waste collection system start with waste pickers. Sometimes called scavengers or informal waste collectors, they have always been around, as they are today, collecting around 60% of the world’s recyclables. Waste pickers will usually focus on metals, aluminium (soda) cans, then on clear PET bottles. Waste pickers alone can help collect up to +/- 80% of these materials. Once those get harder to find, they will also collect cardboard, paper and in countries where glass bottles have a value, those as well. Maybe achieving an overall collection rate of 20-30%. Most other materials will be left in the gutter including beverage cartons, chips bags, sachets, polystyrene, supermarket bags and other single use plastics.

Economies with large numbers of waste pickers such as Brazil, South Africa, Indonesia, Philippines and Indonesia have about 450 waste pickers for every 100,000 population.

The most important enabler of a waste picker economy is the prevalence of a recycling industry that is willing to pay for recyclables. These recyclers, willing to pay a price for valuable materials, are the spark required to ignite segregated waste collection. The recycling rates rise from 0% to 3-5%.

The main obstacle to a thriving waste picker economy are state regulations. As mentioned above, the fear of disease can lead to state control over collections. But also racism is a blocker. In countries where waste pickers are seen as a menace and are subsequently outlawed by the state. This stigma of waste picking is especially true where waste pickers are part of a national minority, such as the Roma gipsies of the Eastern European Balkan countries, the Madura of Indonesia or the Copts of Egypt.

Stage 2 – Formalisation via Municipal Collections [30-60% collection rate]
In most developing countries municipal collections are gradually managing to collect 40-50% of the municipal solid waste. Most of this waste is then brought directly to landfills or incinerators. As soon as the garbage collected gets mixed and compressed into a garbage truck it becomes too dirty to recycle. The only exceptions are where the municipal collectors earn their own bonus income from the valuables picked out of the truck (common in Vietnam, Indonesia and Mexico) or if the municipal waste company has a sorting station to weed out the remaining valuables before going to landfill / incinerator. This is as it often works with waste picker cooperatives in Brazil. By doing this last sorting step the recycling rate can be bumped up as high as 15%.

The success of Municipal waste collections requires municipal budgets, which of course is dependent on successful tax collection, and tough penalties of the illegal dumping of waste.

Stage 3 – Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) Projects [no real increase in collections or recycling]:
The third phase of evolution is ‘projects’ being paid for by multinationals with their CSR budget. These projects have no discernible impact on collection nor recycling rates. They often serve the purpose of experimentation for scaling up or are simply done so that these companies are seen to be doing something.

Stage 4 – Credits [no real increase in collections or recycling]:
The fourth stage is the emergence of systems of ‘credits’ such as Circular Credits or Plastic Credits, which work in a similar way as Carbon Credits. Where waste collection organisations, waste picker cooperatives or collection and sorting stations are audited allowing for certificates (credits) to be issued for the tonnes collected. These credits that were pioneered by BVRio in 2013, calling them ‘reverse logistics credits’, bring badly needed funding to the waste collectors. These credits are bought by individuals or companies wanting to offset the waste that they generate. The only country where waste credits are widely used is Brazil, where all formally registered companies use a system of state controlled invoices as a proxy for audited statements.

You can recognise that you are in a country with stages 1-4 of the waste collection system’s evolution, simply because there’s still a lot of waste lying around. It isn’t until an EPR regulation or a hefty waste tax is enforced that the streets and the environment become cleaner. These are the next two stages of evolution.

Stage 5 – EPR [Collections 50%-80%]:
Step 5 is the introduction of Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) regulations. These are targets set by governments on the consumer goods companies that put packaging into the market. Failing to meet these targets can result in hefty fines that exceed the cost of collection. Consumer goods companies will then band together often forming what’s called a Producer Recycling Organisation (PRO). The PRO, which is paid for by its members, will then collect the packaging waste on behalf of its members until the collection targets are met. These EPR schemes cost approximately USD 800 per tonne in Europe, to as low as $30 per tonne in Brazil. However, as the percentage of waste collected grows and starts to exceed the 80%-90% mark. A smart EPR regulation will also mandate that more than 40% of the collections should be recycled. The EU countries started EPR in the 1990’s, followed by India in 2016 it has now spread to Chile, Colombia, South Africa and Vietnam.

Implementing EPR is a stakeholder and an enforcement challenge. However, once successful, achieving collection rates of close to 80%, it becomes exponentially more expensive to collect the final 10-20%. This is where deposit return schemes (DRS) comes in.

Stage 6 – Deposit return schemes (DRS) [Collections > 80%]:
This is where the final step (STEP 6) in the waste evolution comes in, with DRS or Deposit Return Schemes, common to supermarkets in Europe, Japan and the US. These DRS systems allow consumers to be paid for doing part of the collection work. Having them deliver beverage containers and more back to where they bought it. In order to make this work, reverse vending machines need to be implemented, which can be expensive. This final step brings down the cost to a predictable amount per unit of packaging, thus limiting the cost of reaching a collection rate that exceeds 80%.

Stage 7 – Reduce and Redesign [reduce the need for collections]:
The beauty of the EPR regulations is that the costs of collecting their own packaging waste becomes very clear to the consumer goods companies. These costs then become the incentive for them to redesign packaging or reduce the need for packaging. The redesign of packaging materials, which may have initially seemed to be prohibitively expensive, is now becoming a viable economic alternative. A good example of this is Coca Cola that initially sold its soda drink in glass bottles that were returned in crates. In the absence of waste regulations it found a cheaper alternative to glass bottles in plastic bottles and aluminium cans. Not only was the material cheaper to make, it saved in transportation and collection costs. In the absence of waste regulations Coca Cola’s plastic and aluminium waste production has grown to 3 million tonnes a year. But now with EPR regulations being introduced and enforced, you can expect to see your products delivered in new more environmentally friendly packaging.

The Drivers

The most important underlying drivers of this evolution of waste collection are:

  • Recycling: creates the demand for recyclable materials from which waste pickers, informal collections and EPR can emerge. Recycling is no panacea though, as no more than +/- 40% of waste can be recycled with today’s technology. Some 50% of all municipal waste is biomass and food waste. Composting is therefore an important key to achieve higher recycling rates.
  • Landfills, incinerators and waste-to-energy: form the main destination for Municipal solid waste collections.
  • Successful tax collections: are a necessary prerequisite for the budgets required to pay for municipal solid waste collection;
  • Enforcement of legislation has to be consistently followed through to make municipal collections and EPR function well; and to prevent illegal dumping of waste.


If you are dropped in any part of the world, clean streets are probably the best sign of an effective government.

In other words, effective government regulations and enforcement are probably the most important driver of good waste management in a country.