Picking Garbage: First World Ingenuity, Third World Necessity

A post on Medium by Katie Salisbury applauds the ingenuity of two women in New York City that collect cans as a source of income.[1] These women, mother and daughter, are described as coming from humble beginnings and their hard work has brought them to a point where collecting cans is paying for the daughters’ education. It is considered an astounding feat that regular everyday First World people dig through the garbage to collect the recycled cans necessary to pay for daily life.

“Together, they work quickly, picking up about 2,500 cans and bottles a day. At 5 cents a piece, that translates into roughly $900 a week. On average, they haul in 72,000 cans a month. Do the math and that adds up to 864,000 cans a year, which means they pull in nearly a million cans annually.”[2]

In the Third World this is known as “waste picking.” They are people, many of them children, who sift through mountains of garbage to find recyclable materials to sell or for personal use. It is estimated that there are millions of such people worldwide, mostly in developing countries. The World Bank has estimated that 1% to 2% of the world’s population live in this way.[3] A study in 2010 claimed that there were 1.5 million waste pickers in India.[4] In Brazil, there is an estimated quarter million.[5]

Damage done to the health of waste pickers is unimaginable to the average First World person.

  • It’s a very common for children to do the waste picking.[6]
  • In Mexico City the average lifespan of a waste picker is 39 years, compared to the national average of 69 years.[7]
  • Previously in Egypt, there was an infant mortality rate of 1/3 among waste pickers. Meaning, one out of three babies dies before reaching the age of one.[8]
  • Disease and toxic fumes are a constant threat to waste pickers. Injuries are extremely common, particularly from trash slides.[9] For example, several hundred were killed when a trash slide crushed them after monsoon rains at a dump in Payatas, Philippines.[10]

As the post laments their position, think about the advantageous global class they have: They make $900 a week, or $128 a day assuming they do it 7 days a week. Meanwhile, “[n]early 1/2 of the world’s population — more than 3 billion people — live on less than $2.50 a day. More than 1.3 billion live in extreme poverty — less than $1.25 a day.”[11] By merely scraping together cans, they earn nearly 100 times a day what the poor do. Scavenging through garbage is reserved for the very poorest of the poor in the Third World due to its high mortality rate. Even picking through garbage in the First World comes with an incredible benefit.

What this post shows is the absolute absent mindedness of the average First Worlder. They feel sorry for, or applaud some White women for going down into the garbage to collect cans to pay for an education. If this is so sad and “innovative,” why is the same not said for people, children, in the Third World? If this is a sign of how terrible things are for First World people; where is the outrage at the deaths of 22,000 children a day who live in such conditions?[12]

The class difference couldn’t be any starker. These women collect cans off the street to turn in for hundreds of dollars to pay for an education and a place to live. Meanwhile, untold numbers of children crawl through diseased piles of waste from the First World to scrape together enough to eat. That food is usually just barely enough to survive. Quite often, it isn’t enough. The mortality rate surrounding such children is terribly high, disease runs rampant.

This kind of suffering is far from the minds of the global labour aristocracy. The deaths of tens millions are far from their minds as they congratulate themselves for doing a job infinitely easier than the one others do to barely survive. All of this is significant when we consider that those in the First World live off the suffering of the global poor. Value is stolen from the Third World and is exchanged for the garbage of First World excess.

First World people cannot be considered the allies of the global proletariat. The suffering of hundreds of millions is insignificant to them – compared to their self-congratulation.


[1] Salisbury K. “This Millennial Is Putting Herself Through School by Collecting Cans”. Medium. July 29 2016. Web. Accessed July 31st 2016. https://medium.com/@ksalisbury/this-millennial-is-putting-herself-through-school-by-collecting-cans-ca3c9b537e96

[2] Ibid.

[3] Bartone, C. (January 1988). “The Value in Wastes”. Decade Watch.

[4] Chaturvedi, Bharati (2010). “Mainstreaming Waste Pickers and the Informal Recycling Sector in the Municipal Solid Waste”. Handling and Management Rules 2000, A Discussion Paper.

[5] Souza Pena. “WIEGO Fact Sheet: Waste Pickers Brazil” (PDF). Retrieved 31 July 2016 http://wiego.org/sites/wiego.org/files/resources/files/Fact-Sheet-Waste-Pickers-Brazil.pdf

[6] ILO/IPEC. “Addressing the Exploitation of Children in Scavenging (Waste Picking): A Thematic Evaluation of Action on Child Labour (2004)”. International Labour Office. Retrieved 31 July 2016.

[7] Castillo, H. (1990). La Sociedad de la Basura: Caciquismo Urbano en la Ciudad de México. Second Edition. Mexico City: UNAM.

[8] Etribi, T.L. (1981). The People of the Gabbal: Life and wwork among the Zabbaleen of Manshiyet Nasser. Cairo: Environmental Quality International.

[9] Binion,E.; Gutberlet, J. (March 2012). “The effects of handling solid waste on the wellbeing of informal and organized recyclers: a review of the literature”. International Journal of Occupational and Environmental Health. 18 (1): 43–52. doi:10.1179/1077352512z.0000000001.

[10] “Manila dump death toll rises”. BBC News. 17 July 2000. Retrieved 31 July 2016. http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/asia-pacific/835034.stm

[11] Do Something. 11 Facts about Global poverty. https://www.dosomething.org/us/facts/11-facts-about-global-poverty

[12] Levels & Trends in Child Mortality Report 2010. Estimates Developed by the UN Inter-agency Group for Child Mortality Estimation. http://www.childmortality.org/files_v20/download/Levels%20and%20Trends%20in%20Child%20Mortality%20Report%202010.pdf