As polluter-pays laws kick in, Asia needs to integrate informal workers in waste management system, not eliminate them

While informal waste pickers are often seen as competitors to the formal sector, they must be accorded dignity for their expertise and the hard labour they put in, say industry experts at the launch of Eco-Business’ new film investigating the region’s waste crisis.

Plastic bottles in Vietnam informal waste recycling facility
Workers hand sorting plastic bottles from many international brands like Coca-Cola at an informal recycling facility in Vietnam. The country is largely dependent on an informal sector plagued with poor working conditions to process its mounting waste. Image: Eco-Business

Countries in Asia have begun mandating that companies must pay for managing the waste they produce through implementing Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) laws. 

In 2022, Vietnam – which ranks fourth globally in volume of plastic waste – became the first Southeast Asian nation to adopt EPR rules under a revised Environmental Protection Law. However, it remains unclear what the role of the informal waste sector will be under the new EPR laws.

Vietnam’s army of informal waste workers – who are predominantly women – process more than 90 per cent of the country’s recyclable plastic waste. Yet, they tend to be paid less than formal workers and lack job security and access to other job-related benefits.

As depicted in a new documentary “Wasted”, which investigates Asia’s waste crisis across India, Singapore, South Korea and Vietnam, workers in informal recycling sites still manually sort much of the waste by hand and are often subject to unsafe and unsanitary working conditions. 

At the film premiere on Saturday held at The Projector, an independent cinema in Singapore, one audience member asked if the informal sector should be phased out as EPR regulations gradually kick in across Asia. 

Wasted film premiere at The Projector

The audience at the film premiere of Eco-Business’ latest documentary “Wasted”, which took place at Singapore’s arthouse cinema The Projector. Image: Roy Ng / Eco-Business

In response, Prashant Singh, co-founder and chief executive officer of Singapore-based Blue Planet Environmental Solutions said that at least in the near- to mid-term, the informal sector “will be an extremely important piece to the puzzle of the solution”. 

Unfortunately, we [referring to formal waste management firms] have been seeing them as competition, when they should be viewed as facilitators. We need to engage with them as part of the solution so that we can make use of their expertise and hard work”, said Singh. 

“In turn, they will also get dignity for the labour they put in. Including them is the only approach,” said Singh. Blue Planet Environmental Solutions was one of the firms featured in the documentary. The company, along with Norwegian recycling firm Tomra supported the film as partners. 

Panel discussion for "Wasted" premiere

It will be harder for businesses to not account for the externalities of their operations in an age of hyper-transparency, said Jessica Cheam, founder and managing director of Eco-Business (first from right), who is executive producer of the film. Other speakers on the panel discussion following the film premiere included (from left) executive producer Fraser Morton Prashant Singh, co-founder and chief executive officer, Blue Planet Environmental Solutions, and Roy Ng, the film’s assistant producer. Image: Liang Lei / Eco-Business

The documentary also looks at the undesirable working conditions in the formal waste sector. It followed 47-year-old Cao Thi Luot, a waste worker who is part of the estimated 16,000-strong formal waste workforce in Vietnam’s major cities, who goes about Ho Chi Minh collecting and segregating the daily trash that piles up on the streets by hand.

“Yesterday I was splashed with garbage and it smelled really bad,” she recounted in the documentary.

“I think you have to love your job, then you can continue to work. You have to say, ‘The job finds me, not me looking for the job’. No one likes this job,” said Luot, who has been a waste worker or the past eight years.

Formal waste collector in Vietnam

47-year-old Cao Thi Luot is one of tens of thousands of waste collectors who play a key role in managing Vietnam’s waste problem. Image: Eco-Business

Panel speakers said that in other parts of Asia still lacking EPR laws, change has to start with legislation to ensure polluters pay.

Within Southeast Asia, Philippines is the only other country that has enacted polluter-pays regulations for packaging waste. Indonesia has a voluntary EPR scheme in place, while Thailand has pledged to recycle 100 per cent of its waste by 2027 and is in the process of planning its EPR framework. Meanwhile, Singapore is slated to roll out its EPR scheme in 2025, which was first mooted nearly two decades ago.

While businesses have managed to get away without having to account for their externalities in the last century, it will become increasingly harder to escape responsibility in an age of hyper-transparency, as technology gets more sophisticated in tracking their footprint, said Jessica Cheam, founder and managing director of Eco-Business.

“A lot of organisations today say: ‘Oh, sustainability is so expensive.’ No, actually it’s because the true costs of doing business are now being reflected in their balance sheets,” she said. “In the past it used to be hidden or businesses did not have to account for it.”

Fraser Morton, executive producer at Eco-Business, who spent the last few months on the ground filming the documentary, said that the solution actually comes down to “very simple choices”, but government will is needed. 

“The key to unlocking a lot of these problems is EPR laws. These sweeping legislations can actually happen very quickly,” he said.

Rather than blaming the region’s waste crisis on consumers, the biggest polluters like Coca-Cola, Unilever and Starbucks – all of whom declined to be interviewed for the documentary – need to be held accountable for the true costs of their businesses through such legislations, said Morton. 

“Too many environmental films point fingers at consumers, and that is nonsense. We need to be holding polluters responsible for the products they are putting into the market that we are consuming,” he said. 

“Wasted” is a production by Eco-Business. You can find out more about the onging documentary series and take your pledge to hold polluters responsible for the waste they produce here.

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