The Hidden Cost of Clean Streets: The Philippines' Informal Waste Workers

April 15, 2024

The Philippines relies on over 100,000 informal waste workers, mostly women & children, for waste collection. Despite their vital role, they face poverty & health risks. A new law offers hope. By integrating them into the system, they can gain income, benefits & rights, building a more sustainable waste future.

The Philippines relies on a network of over 100,000 Informal Waste Workers (IWWs) to keep our communities clean. Yet, most of them are living below the poverty line, earning less than half the daily minimum wage. It’s no secret that waste management in the Philippines is subpar, and IWWs carry much of the burden by collecting and sorting waste that would otherwise end up in landfills or the environment. The IWWs often sacrifice their health and safety to provide a vital service–a service that is too often taken for granted.

Day in and day out, these workers rummage through trash bags filled with mixed waste in the hopes of finding anything valuable they can clean and sell to junk shops. Valuable waste, in this context, can come in the form of plastic and glass bottles, aluminum cans, and cardboard. Often, the waste they sort through can be a breeding ground for harmful bacteria, putting their health on the line with every item they collect. Without proper health care and access to safety gear, these workers are exposed to health crises with no safety net. Despite all these risks, these workers, driven by the need to put food on the table for their families, persevere.

A Filipino woman sorting plastic beverage bottles. Photo Credit:
Two children waste workers scavenging a landfill full of plastic waste. Photo Credit: Eco-business

Most informal waste workers in the Philippines are women and children. Men are usually the breadwinners of the family, while women are bound by domestic duties, and opportunities for regular jobs are few and far between. Families that struggle to get by have little choice but to have their children become informal waste workers themselves, preventing them from attaining an education.

Fortunately, informal waste workers are slowly gaining public recognition for their efforts. With the new EPR law in effect, people have been lobbying to formalize the workers, and the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) is pushing to integrate informal waste workers into the law’s implementation so they can have a steady source of income, benefits, and protection of their rights.

An elderly woman picking up trash in a Philippine dumpsite. Photo Credit: clean

The Philippines needs to finally recognize the essential service informal waste workers provide and reward them with the compensation they deserve. Integrating informal waste workers into the country’s EPR scheme is not only a strategic move–it’s an equitable one too. This isn’t just about rewarding deserving individuals; it’s about building a more sustainable and resilient waste management system for generations to come.