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Waste Management and Adaptation in Coastal Cities

19 Apr 2021

  • Author(s): Diane Archer

Waste Management and Adaptation in Coastal Cities
The UNRISD project Transformative Adaptation to Climate Change in Coastal Cities seeks to increase understanding of transformative adaptation and improve adaptation decision making in the context of two Southeast Asian coastal cities, Ho Chi Minh City and Jakarta. This contribution is meant to extend the inquiry beyond these two cities, illustrating the relevance of questions of justice, transformation and adaptation in other (coastal) places, too.

Globally, 90.5% of the plastic waste we generate is never recycled. A significant proportion of this plastic ends up in our oceans: annually, 8 million tonnes of plastic enter our oceans, adding to the estimated 150 million tonnes already in the sea. This plastic is damaging to marine ecosystems and the populations who rely on marine resources for their livelihoods, as well as entering the food stream through microplastics.

A large proportion of Asia’s land mass is classified as low-elevation coastal zone (LECZ): 881,000km2 of Asia is LECZ, out of a global total of 2,700,000km2 (McGranahan et al. 2007). These LECZs also aggregate populations in urban areas. Around 71% of marine plastic is estimated to originate from Asia, from mismanaged waste within 50km of coastal areas (Archer and Trang 2019). Waste collection coverage in urban Asia more generally reaches around 77% (Archer and Trang 2019), although it is important to recognize significant differences both across countries and within them. In many countries, even when there is a formal waste collection system, this does not include recycling facilities. It is largely informal waste collectors, working in difficult conditions, without secure income, safety equipment or recognition, who gather recyclable materials either out of rubbish bins or landfill sites, or directly from businesses and households.

Careful consideration of how waste management is carried out in coastal cities could help minimize the impacts of climate change. This means, for example, considering the physical aspects of waste management to minimize leakages, which can block drains and worsen flooding. It also means examining how workers in the waste sector can be supported to adapt to the impacts of climate change, particularly those who work informally and lack access to government services such as social safety nets and certain public services.

Some findings from a study of informal waste workers

An ongoing study by the Stockholm Environment Institute (SEI) Asia has focused on the role of informal waste workers in Bangkok’s recycling sector, particularly ambulant workers who collect recyclable materials from bins, or buy it directly from households and shops, for resale to waste traders.

During July-October 2020, 34 informal waste workers in two Bangkok districts participated in a survey which sought to assess their working conditions, the types of waste materials they collected, how these materials were processed and sold, and how the workers were regarded by society. All the respondents are unregistered as waste workers with the government, highlighting the informal nature of their occupation and its precarity.

The respondents collect or buy garbage from condominiums, houses, shophouses and grocery stores, public bins or dump sites, the roadside and other public spaces. Once obtained, they sort the waste based on type—paper boxes, glass bottles and plastics—and grade—for example, transparent and opaque plastics. Most of them use a tricycle or motorcycle cart or travel by foot. They (re)sell their materials on to junk shops who collate recyclable materials for larger waste processors.

The main issue our respondents faced in collecting and sorting waste is the lack of a temporary space or a covered area for storing waste; some also indicated the health risks and high competition for waste due to an increasing number of waste-pickers. Owing to the lack of storage, many have to sell their waste daily (and therefore cannot wait for better prices) or store it outside their house, friends’ houses or public spaces. Another reason to sell waste daily is their need for cash to buy waste from their suppliers.

Most respondents sell the plastics that they collect to junk shops daily. The determinants of the types of plastics being collected include their availability, market prices and how easy they are to sell. Some of the difficulties in collecting recyclable plastics include low and fluctuating prices. “If the price is not good, I will not collect the waste because it will not be worth it.” Some respondents felt the government should regulate the price of plastic.

We asked the waste-pickers for their suggestions to improve waste recycling in the city. Many of them expressed frustration regarding the lack of waste sorting behaviour among households. When waste pickers buy waste from households, the sellers sometimes weigh down bottles with contaminants, making the waste workers’ job difficult and unpleasant. They also identified a lack of waste sorting bins in public places.

“If they sort the waste for me, it would be good because I can sell them right away and collect more waste. If I wander [to collect and buy waste from other people], I have to sort them by myself, which wastes my time.”

“It is hard to ask people to sort the waste. It’s up to them. I haven’t seen anyone sort them. Even big companies mix the waste.”

However, one respondent worried that source separation would end up harming waste-pickers in the long run: “In fact, if people sorted waste, they would sell the waste [to junk shops or larger waste processors]. Then we would be jobless.”

What does this mean for adaptation in coastal cities?

Our study has showed that waste collectors searching for recyclables face a tough market, with little control over the price they can get for materials, and their job involves long hours in difficult conditions. They have no job security and no official recognition of their contribution. Yet they play an important role in reducing the mismanagement of waste, ensuring plastics and other recyclable materials do end up getting recycled rather than going to landfill or entering waterways or other natural ecosystems. A study of Sai Mai district in Bangkok estimated that the informal recycling processes (by informal waste workers as well as municipal staff) led to 21,681 tonnes of avoided greenhouse gas emissions yearly (Johnson and Trang 2019).

Informal waste workers make a significant contribution to climate change mitigation, and adaptation, by preventing mismanaged waste which can clog drainage channels or escape during times of flooding. However, to ensure that mitigation and adaptation are equitable and inclusive, we also need to focus on ensuring informal waste workers are able to adapt to the impacts of climate change. This means addressing some of the challenges they face, such as the lack of protected spaces to store their goods, their access to protective equipment such as hats and drinking water in the face of urban heat island effects, and their access to social safety nets when they cannot work, for example due to flooding. Many of them live in poor quality, informal housing with no tenure security, putting them at risk of eviction and creating additional insecurity. Inclusive adaptation also means considering our urban spaces: is there enough public shaded space for outdoor workers to rest? Is access to clean drinking water and public toilets easy and free? If we are looking to adapt our cities to climate change, the needs of specific groups of urban workers and dwellers need to be considered, to ensure they are not left behind. The decision-making processes behind adaptation should be inclusive of marginalized population groups, so that their specific needs can be taken into account.

About the Author
Diane Archer is a Senior Research Fellow with the Stockholm Environment Institute. The research, “Towards inclusive waste systems”, is funded by the Swedish research agency FORMAS, with some top-up funding from The Incubation Network.


Archer, D. and N. Trang. 2019. Closing the loop: Innovative partnerships with informal workers to recover plastic waste, in an inclusive circular economy approach. Regional Policy Guide. UNESCAP, Bangkok.

Johnson, O. and N. Trang. 2019. Closing the loop: Innovative partnerships with informal workers to recover plastic waste, in an inclusive circular economy approach. Sai Mai District, Bangkok Case study. UNESCAP, Bangkok.

McGranahan, G., D. Balk and B. Anderson. 2007. The rising tide: Assessing the risks of climate change and human settlements in low elevation coastal zones. Environment and Urbanization 19(1), 17–37. DOI: 10.1177/0956247807076960

Photo: Jasmis Sessler (public domain via Unsplash)



This article reflects the views of the author(s) and does not necessarily represent those of the United Nations Research Institute for Social Development.