Waste pickers line up for support as lockdown affects recycling business

As around 500 waste picker households gather to receive money and food from charities, the head of the Re-users and Recyclers Trade Association says an influx of imported waste and the lockdown measures have heavily impacted the recycling business. Despite a state policy to secure prices, waste pickers still find it hard to get by.

A waste picker received a bag of supply at the venue.

On 3 May, the waste pickers from the Suea Yai community in Bangkok, where most people work as scavengers, and nearby areas gathered at Chandrakasem Rajabhat University to receive cash and food handouts.

The event was held under the to lom hai jai saleng (breath of life for recyclers) programme, mostly sponsored by the recycling business association. This is an attempt at short-term assistance for waste pickers who are directly affected by the Covid-19 control measures.

Chaiyut Phonsen, President of the Re-users and Recyclers Trade Association, said the recycling business experienced dire difficulties in 2019 from international and domestic causes. Although the Ministry of Finance has implemented a relief policy, the Emergency Decree and nationwide lockdown caused by the Covid-19 outbreak has reduced overall economic activity and the money that can be made from waste.

Jurin Laksanawisit, Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Finance, presided at the ceremony. The Ministry contributed 6,000 cans of food to the programme. The Deputy Prime Minister said that he will ask the government to ensure that waste pickers were eligible for the monthly 5,000 baht ad-hoc state support.

The industry came under threat in 2018 when China started to reject imports of waste from rich countries, a lot of which was diverted to Thailand.  The situation intensified with the US-China trade war. This resulted in a drop in prices for recycled waste. Paper and plastic experienced huge price falls. In case of paper, the price dropped from 4-7 baht per kilogram to 0.50 baht. 

A report from the Ministry of Finance shows that the Ministry summoned stakeholders to sort out the issue. It ended up increasing the floor price for paper to 2 baht per kg.

Thongdi Yotthap, 56, has been driving a tricycle picking waste for 2 decades and said that the 2 baht floor price is still very low. 

Laemthong Dithiang, a 73-year-old tricycle driver, said that scrap prices are falling across the board. She nowadays makes a daily profit of around 100-400 baht.

Panya Phuttan, around 50 years old, works as a messenger by day, and drives a tricycle at night but stopped collecting waste when the government declared the nationwide 10 pm – 4 am curfew. His daily income was thus reduced to 200-300 baht. The ad-hoc 5,000 baht state support has already been spent on rent and monthly payments.

On the ability of waste pickers to work during the curfew, Jurin said that staying at home is a common guideline that everybody has to abide by.

Participants waiting in social-distancing manner.

Waste management plays a significant role in the Thai economy as in many poor countries. Data from the Association shows that the amount of waste retrieved for recycling is 3,600 tonnes per day, or 1.3 million tonnes per year. 

Waste is bought, collected and processed by waste pickers from homes, streets or landfill sites. It is then sold to larger recycling companies, who process it and resell it to larger buyers until it reaches the recycling factories.

A 2019 Heinrich Boell Stiftung report “Plastic Atlas” on the world of synthetic polymers shows that 65 percent of 763 waste picker respondents from Asia, Africa and Latin America said that picking and selling waste is their main source of income.

However, market mechanisms contribute to recycling only to a certain extent as demand and processing costs vary across the globe. In some parts of Thailand, coloured PET (polyethylene terephthalate) bottles and milk boxes are not accepted by recycling shops as they require a more extensive collection procedure or major buyers are so far away that they are not worth processing. A similar thing happens with some types of plastic in Brazil, according to the report.