I have, in my first post and in the ‘About me” section, frequently referred to the term ‘rag picking’ and ‘rag pickers’. The term is even part of the domain name of this blog. But what does it actually mean? In this post I intend to clarify what I understand by the term “rag picking” and what being a ‘rag picker’ in the developing world signifies. This entry will be longer than usual and therefore I have decided that will I explain why I am so interested in this phenomenon in a future post.
As a start, I want you to think for a minute about what the word rag picking or rag picker means to you. I’m sure that for many of you this will bring to mind images of impoverished children climbing piles of rubbish on a garbage dump. And even though this is indeed one representation of a particular type of rag picking, the more general idea of rag picking is nevertheless not strictly limited to this very strong image that represents absolute poverty in one of its most extreme expressions.
Under rag picking I understand the informal collection of any type of solid waste. This collection does not necessarily have to only take place on the garbage dump.Rag pickers also collect waste out of bins, from the streets, out of rivers, and even out of the lorries of the municipal waste management services. In academia, most scholars describe this activity as ‘scavenging’. Some also use terms such as ‘(informal) waste collecting’, ‘scrounging’, ‘waste picking’, or ‘waste recycling’ to describe the same occupation. There is however a good reason why I chose to use the term ‘rag picker’ instead of the more commonly used ‘scavenger’. In some countries, such as India, ‘scavenging’ refers to people transporting human faeces. In these countries, calling someone a ‘scavenger’ can be regarded as an insult and is very degrading.
Usually rag pickers try to collect as much waste as possible. On a daily basis, they then sell it on to middle (wo)men as a secondary raw material. Secondary raw materials are goods, which through the process of recycling can be reused in the industrial process. One very typical type of goods collected by rag pickers is for example cardboard. In some places cardboard is so commonly collected that rag pickers have become known as “cartoneros”. Contrary to what one might believe, rag pickers are usually not looking for waste that they can re-use or recycle themselves (even though this does of course happen, too). It is more likely that rag pickers are rather interested in materials, which they can sell for a financial return. In the developing world these materials can consist of almost anything: plastic bottles, paper, rags, bones, card board, scrap metal, glass, cigarettes… the list goes on and on.
Rag pickers are usually paid according to volume/weight and quality of the collected materials by a middle (wo)man. Usually they only receive a very small income that is just about enough for their daily survival. In many cases whole families are therefore occupied as rag pickers. They are also often in debt to the middle (wo)men whom they sell the materials too and thus become dependent and have to remain with the same trader, regardless of what price the trader decides to offer them for their goods.
Rag pickers can be of any age and any gender. In fact, there are some places where women rag pickers are predominant. But this depends from region to region. Oftentimes rag pickers are migrants who have come to the city in order to lead a better life and frequently they are illegal immigrants. Rag picking is also not strictly limited to people with little formal education. There are many accounts of well educated rag pickers that can be found in the scholarly literature. In many places rag pickers belong to the lower religious casts or minority groups. Examples are the ‘scheduled casts’ in India, and the Coptic Christians in Egypt.
People living of other people’s waste is in no way a new trend. On the contrary, the collection of other people’s wastes used to have a long tradition in European countries. One can for example think of the German “Lumpenkremer” (rag men) and their Luxembourgish equivalents the “Lompekréimer”, as well as the French “chiffonniers” who all played a part of everyday life about two centuries ago. These rag men were travellers who traded rags for small household items. The collected rags were sold on and used in the paper production process.
It is also interesting to note that scavenging peoples’ rubbish bins in the search for valuables is not an activity that is strictly limited to the developing world. Almost everywhere, there are people who are constantly on the outlook for scrap metals, which can be sold for recycling, or items that might be re-used or fetch some money on a yard or car boot sale. The main difference between waste collectors in the ‘developed’ world and the rag pickers in the developing world probably is that the former are not reliant on informal waste collection for survival. For them it usually is a form of income enhancement. For some people, re-using waste is even an ideological statement and the expression of an alternative lifestyle.
Personally I am mostly interested in rag picking as a main means of survival as it is usually the case in the developing world. Here, rag picking can of course be a very dangerous occupation. Especially the people, who work on the garbage dump, are exposed to many risks. They usually do not wear any protective equipment or clothing and search through the piles of waste, either with their bare hands, or with with metal hooks. Doing so, they often get injured by sharp objects and broken glass. There is also a great risk of getting into contact with fecal matters as well as toxic and medical wastes. Furthermore, rag pickers often have to compete with wild dogs and rats that are bound to carry contagious illnesses. Rag pickers are furthermore often exposed to extreme weather conditions. Since many rag pickers who collect waste at the dump also tend to live on or around the garbage dump. This poses further risks as has been shown by a trash slide in Manila (Philippines) in 2000 that cost the lives of at least 71 people living on the “smokey mountain” garbage dump.
When collecting garbage in the streets, there are other problems that rag pickers need to deal with. In many places rag pickers bear a very low social status. They are frequently victims of verbal and physical abuse (especially women and children) and for many local governments they are nothing more than an “unpleasant sight”, spoiling the view for tourists. Yet, many cities of the third world could not do without rag pickers to deal with their solid waste and to keep their streets relatively clean. Especially in slums, where conventional waste collection is impossible due to the narrowness of the streets, rag pickers play an essential role in getting rid of the garbage.
There is much more which can be said about rag picking, but for now I hope that this entry has helped to give you a rough idea about what it is all about. Obviously there there are other people with other opinions on this issue. Please also be aware that I have made many generalisations, which cannot be applied universally. Obviously, I always welcome your comments and ideas very much. So do not hesitate to get in touch. For those of you who want to know more about the issue at hand, here is the link to the Wikipedia entry. If you prefer a more academic account, Google-scholar the work of Martin Medina who is one, if not the specialist in the field. There are some short articles which are available online and which can be downloaded free of charge. I can also recommend his book “The World’s Scavengers”. Like all of Medina’s work, it is a very good read and it is written in a very accessible way.
My next entry will be shorter again and I will explain why I am so interested in rag picking in the developing world. Thanks for reading this entry.