Recycling Systems in the Developing World

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Most developing nations do not have formal waste recycling systems in place. Rather, individuals or groups of individuals (called “waste pickers”) retrieve reusable materials from landfills and resell them. This arrangement benefits the environment and provides the poor with a much-needed source of income.

Currently, about 1% of the urban population in developing countries survives by salvaging recyclables. That amounts to about 15 million people.  According to Adam Minter, an Asia-based columnist for Bloomberg View and author of Junkyard Planet, “The global recycling industry employs more people on this planet than any other industry but agriculture.”

Let’s take a look at the various recycling efforts currently emerging in the developing world:


According to most estimates, only about 10% of the waste generated every day in Africa is collected. The rest usually ends up in illegal dump sites, gutters and drainage in Africa’s cities. But some enterprising individuals, such as the one featured in the video clip below, are hoping to change all that.


The Zabaleens of Egypt

One group of Africans who have worked in recycling for decades is the Zabaleen people in Egypt. The Zabaleen go door-to-door in Cairo collecting trash, of which they are able to recycle up to 80%. With the help of Egypt’s Association for the Protection of the Environment (APE), they operate facilities for recycling plastic, paper and metal. The Egyptian government has conferred official status on the Zabaleen’s role in furthering Cairo’s waste recycling systems.

Currently, the Zabaleen collect nearly two-thirds of the 15,000 tons of rubbish thrown away by Cairo’s 17 million inhabitants every day. APE head Suzie Greiss has called the Zabaleens “the core of the waste collection and disposal process” in Cairo.

Another thing many African countries are already doing (perhaps more so than any other continent) is placing a ban on plastic bags. Currently, South Africa, Uganda, Somalia, Rwanda, Botswana, Kenya and Ethiopia all have total bans in place.

Other Efforts in Africa

Other industrial recycling efforts in developing African countries include the following:

  • In 2015, a group of Kenyans formed Eco Post Ltd., a company that converts plastics waste into poles and road posts. The initiative is gradually creating employment and reducing (if not eliminating) plastic waste. Click here to see the video.
  • In Central and East Africa, the paper recycling industry is beginning to recycle waste paper into toilet rolls, tissue paper, egg crates and many more usable products.
  • The Glass Recycling Company has partnered with the government and glass manufacturers in South Africa in an attempt to improve the country’s glass recycling rate. As a result, glass recycling increased to 40% in 2013 — a 230% increase from 2007.

Latin America

In many cities in Latin America between 80-90% of everything that is recycled is recovered by the informal recycling sector (those who retrieve reusable materials from landfills and resell them). For instance, in Brazil, nearly 500 cooperatives employ approximately 500,000 recycling collectors. This is a $3 billion industry.

“The global recycling industry employs more people on this planet than any other industry but agriculture.” — Adam Minter, Journalist and Author

According to internet contributor Be Waste Wise, “The main difference between Latin America and the countries of the Global North is that solid waste management (in Latin America) is a labor-intensive system. It is made up of workers and hence has an important social component.”

Therefore, future recycling efforts in Latin America must not only upgrade the waste management and industrial recycling systems, but should also formalize and integrate the “informal” recycling sector.

Central America

In Guatemala, plastics recycling company Ingrup, founded in 1974, has built a strong business model with a presence in 20 countries.

The company manufactures containers, packaging, labels and household products by processing such plastics as PET, HDPE, LDPE, polypropylene (PP) and polycarbonate (PC). In 2013 the company added technology to recycle post-consumer PET. The resulting raw material is used either in the textile industry or to produce new PET containers for beverages and food.

South America

In Bogota, Colombia, the “waste pickers” have changed the government’s outlook on their work and their existence, after 27 years of struggle. They are now considered an integral part of the country’s recycling systems. These workers are paid per ton of waste collected (just like any other private sector recycling or waste management company) and are now recognized as public service providers.

Chile opened its first electronic scrap recycling facility in 2005.  In early 2014, several international companies (including Nestle, PepsiCo, Coca-Cola Chile and Walmart) began pooling their recycling systems in Chile. The partnership installed five recycling centers in Santiago. These new sites are able to recycle about 20 different types of materials, including glass, PET plastic, aluminium, paper and cardboard.

Peru opened its first plastics recycling plant in 2007. Since then, the country’s recycling goals have increased dramatically. According to the National Environmental Action Plan, the 2021 goal for Peru is to recycle 100% of the country’s glass, plastic, paper and metal products.

Currently in Peru, there are 78 industrial businesses in different parts of the country that work with recyclable material. Another 62 businesses are dedicated to the export of these materials, primarily plastic that gets shipped to China.


According to India’s Center for Science and Environment, only 15% of household waste in India is recycled. The center’s director, Sunita Narain, recently stated that India’s cities are drowning in rubbish because the country does not have an effective waste recycling system.

Like most countries in the developing world, India relies heavily on its waste pickers, not only for sanitation purposes, but in order to provide industrial recyclers with their raw materials. One such company is Arora Fibres Ltd., based in the industrial belt of Silvassa. Owner Rupinder Singh Arora has been recycling discarded plastic bottles into polyester fiber since 1994. His factory has the capacity to process about 48,000 tons of pastic per year.

One area where India appears to be making significant headway is with electronics recycling (e-cycling). New Delhi has been viewed as the “main hub of e-waste recycling in India – and perhaps the world,” according to a recent study by the Associated Chambers of Commerce and Industry of India (otherwise known as ASSOCHAM).

“As many as 8500 mobile phones, 5500 TV sets and 3000 computers are dismantled in the city every day for reuse of their component parts and materials,” says ASSOCHAM’s secretary general D. S. Rawat. He describes the e-scrap sector as a labor-intensive industry which employs 85,000 recyclers in India’s metropolitan region.



Smart Starter

The Guardian

Recycling Today

Be Waste Wise

Recycling International

Peru This Week

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