The working conditions and the role of China in the recycling industry

By: Patricio Velarde Dibós, Ximena Bautista y Michael Zenteno.


Impact of the National Sword policy on the global recycling chain.


Recycling is a way to reduce the amount of waste that needs to be disposed of in landfills, as to reduce the environmental impact of production and consumption activities in modern societies. Recycling implies a physical, chemical or biological process that generates raw material for new products (Medina, 1999). Globally, China was the most important country for the recycling industry, processing half of all recycled plastic in the world for three decades (National Geographic, 2019). China was the recycling center of the world until 2018, when the National Sword policy went into effect, which banned the import of 24 types of paper and plastic. This policy raised the purity and quality standards of imported waste, reduced garbage import licenses and strengthened the surveillance of solid waste smuggling (CET, 2018) (China Daily, 2018) (Resource Recycling, 2018).


The implementation of this policy allowed China to reduce the import of recyclable materials until 2020, a year in which imports were completely prohibited (El País, 2020). This was a landmark for the global recycling industry. Countries close to China such as Vietnam and Malaysia became new centers for the segregation and processing of solid waste, but were saturated by the scale of plastic imports. This meant that collection centers around the world did not have a destination to send their garbage, which led to the bankruptcy of several small and medium businesses dedicated to recycling, since they could not find demand to keep them in the market. This increased waste going to incinerators and incentivized governments to promote proper segregation and fund recycling plants (Cheryl Katz, 2019).


The Chinese government's concern for solid waste management stems from the goal of reducing its carbon emissions by 18% every five years (Bloomberg, 2021). However, the government's action on solid waste imports can also be attributed to some degree to the social upheaval generated by Plastic China, a Jiuliang Wang's documentary . This documentary revolves around the precarious working conditions in the segregation centers and solid waste processing, evident in the lives of two Chinese families dedicated to this work, who live permanently among mountains of garbage, without personal protective equipment, with precarious income and in a completely polluted environment (The New York Times, 2017).


Working conditions in solid waste segregation: Health threats.


The precarious working conditions to which workers in the recycling industry are exposed increase the risk of accidents and illnesses. These negative consequences are more common in developing countries like Peru, where safety and health measures at work are frequently evaded by employers.


The labor force in the sector ranges from those who are in charge of depositing garbage in the collection trucks to the personnel that handles and segregates it in the final section; Thus, the risk of contracting different diseases derived from direct contact with waste increases throughout the day. In addition to this, those who work in this activity have greater exposure to pests such as rats, cockroaches, flies and other insects or scavengers. These specimens are potential carriers of infectious microorganisms (Labre Salazar & San Lucas Pérez, 2018).


The most common health effects presented in workers are respiratory diseases, caused by the inhalation of dust, gases and dangerous substances; dermatological diseases, as a consequence of contact without protective equipment; Musculoskeletal, due to excessive physical effort when loading large amounts of material. Finally, they also face the risk of cuts or direct injuries, when they come into contact with sharp objects that have not been properly packaged (López Valdepeña et al., 2021).


A factor that further aggravates the risks in handling is the informality of the sector, which is evidenced in the little or no training on the risks that could derive from improper handling; which would cause staff to end up underestimating or unaware of the dangers to which they are exposed. In addition to this, the lack of protective equipment, a key resource and necessary for the safer development of this work. Perfectly avoidable accidents are attributed to negligence on the part of government entities -for lack of supervision and control- and the private sector, for not fulfilling their responsibilities towards their workers (Ramos Ascue & Baldeón Quispe, 2017).


The management of solid waste is a highly risky activity, which is why it is extremely necessary that those who carry out these tasks are duly protected, trained and trained on the damages to which they are prone, as well as the appropriate work techniques to minimize the negative impact they may have on their health.


Peruvian Recycling Situation: Imminent Domestic Segregation, Local Examples.


In Peru , as well as in China, the recycling industry also involves worrying working conditions, both due to its informality and its artisanal nature. According to the newspaper El Comercio (2020) which collects data from Ciudad Saludable organization, out of 180 thousand people who dedicate to recycling in Peru, 93 % do it informally, which causes their work activity to have precarious conditions. Likewise, this informality endangers the health of recyclers due to their contact with elements that are harmful for their health and lie in garbage dumps. With the COVID - 19 pandemic, the precarious situation of recyclers has increased due to the poor domestic segregation of waste that may contain remains of COVID - 19 that harm those who carry out recycling tasks (Defensoría del Pueblo, 2021).


Solid waste management in Lima does not occur adequately due to inefficiency in public waste management by the responsible municipalities (Durand, 2014). In Metropolitan Lima, the collection and recycling of solid waste is inefficient, according to a study by Durand (2014), there are two main groups of actors in solid waste recycling: (I) Waste collectors, those individuals who collect waste directly from the streets, mostly informal and with terrible working conditions. (II) Segregation micro-enterprises, which also work informally and are in charge of buying waste from direct collectors. The author points out that formalizing the recycling activity in Peru is a complex and difficult matter, which is why informality reigns over this sector. Likewise, it states that the actions of direct collectors and segregation micro-enterprises stand out more in districts that do not have adequate solid waste management by the corresponding Municipality. This lack of authority and management means that the working conditions of these recyclers are precarious, with low salaries and exposed to multiple health hazards.


The largest recycling plant in Peru is located in the district of Surco, and despite its capacity for 50 tons of reusable solid waste per day, it only operates at 26 % of its capacity (RPP, 2020). To optimize solid waste collection management in Surco, and also in various districts of Lima, municipalities could work with informal recyclers towards a faster waste collection and thus solve two problems that afflict our population: lack of recycling and waste segregation in the districts of Metropolitan Lima and the precarious labor conditions. For this, good municipal management is needed and, above all, a willingness to manage this issue. (Durand, 2014).


In Peru, the implementation of a segregation system that facilitates recycling is being considered from a domestic perspective. Since 2020, the Ministry of the Environment has planned to make the segregation of solid waste at home mandatory, which would facilitate the use of organic waste and reduce the amount of waste that ends up in landfills, which represent an operating cost for municipalities (Gestión, 2020). Without a doubt, it is positive to promote segregation and recycling, however, solid waste management should not fall solely on the consumers, but mainly on the companies that generate said waste. This would imply measures such as imposing the use of fully recyclable plastics, encouraging the use of glass containers, banning single-use plastics, among other measures aimed at holding companies responsible for the waste they generate.


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