Enhancing the working conditions of the ‘clasificadores’ in Uruguay by regulating the shadow trash market

This is the third in a series of blogs from the finalists of this year’s Policy Idol competition. These blogs were originally presented as policy pitches at the live final of the competition earlier this year. Policy Idol is an annual competition open to all staff and students at King’s.

By Luca Brockmann and Antonio Manzi Gari

Even though Uruguay was picked in 2013 as country of the year by The Economist, mainly due to its progressive social reforms, it still faces deeply entrenched social problems. Among these is the situation of the informal waste collectors, the ‘clasificadores’, whose main source of income is generated by searching for recyclable materials in landfills and residential waste containers which they can take to deposits or recycling plants to be sold. From the limited data available, we estimate that around 4,000 households in Uruguay depend on this ‘trash market’ as their main source of income, which translates to about 18,000 people. Moreover, more than 5,500 of them (28 per cent) are estimated to be children under the age of 14.

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In many cases, clasificadores classify collected waste in their homes, which leads to an accumulation of trash in and around their household, presenting health and hygiene hazards not only for the clasificadores but also their families. In their transactions with the recycling plants, clasificadores also have little bargaining power and must take whatever they get for the materials. This means that, despite being an important link in the recycling chain, clasificadores get paid very little for their work, with 96.5 per cent of households exhibiting some type of poverty, and 60 per cent being chronically poor.

On the waste-generating side of the chain there are three main actors: households, who deposit all their waste in residential containers; industrial companies, which generate industrial waste and have their own regulatory process to discard or recycle it; and public and private enterprises, such as offices, small supermarkets, etc, which generate commercial waste that, in most cases, includes a vast amount of recyclable materials, such as cardboard boxes, plastics, paper and glass.

In the capital city, Montevideo, these public and private companies mentioned above must submit a Waste Disposal Plan to the City Hall detailing all the waste that they will be generating, where it will be stored, and how it will be disposed of. Subsequently, companies must hire an approved waste transport company and pay to get their waste removed. However, there is no requirement to classify this waste, and most of it ends up directly in the landfill, losing valuable recyclable materials in the process. In reality, many companies do not comply with the Waste Disposal Plan, and proceed to discard their waste illegally in residential containers, on an illegal dump, or pay an individual, which could be a clasificador, to get rid of the trash for less money. It is in this situation where we see an opportunity to gradually include clasificadores into the formal system and enhance their working and living conditions.

Luca (l) and Antonio (r) receive their runners-up (style) prize from  former Home Secretary Charles Clarke

Luca (l) and Antonio (r) receive their runners-up (style) prize from former Home Secretary Charles Clarke

To do this, we propose to bring together and connect small and medium sized enterprises to clasificadores through an online central government platform that would allow companies to offer their recyclable materials to these classifiers, giving them direct access to the materials that provide their income. But how would this work?

Instead of having to carry out the bureaucratic process of filling out the Waste Disposal Plan, companies could register and simply list the type and amount of recyclable waste they aim to dispose of on the online platform. On the other side, clasificadores would also register to be part of the platform, getting access to the recyclable materials offered by the companies and selecting what exactly they want to pick up where and at what time. The platform would also have a two-sided review system. On the one hand, companies could give a lower rating for clasificadores who consistently fail to comply with their selected timeslot. On the other hand, clasificadores could rate the companies according to the veracity of the materials they offered and if they were available on the assigned timeslot. This would provide incentives for reliability and quality services. Furthermore, clasificadores could later input the price they received for their materials from recycling plants, thus increasing the transparency of prices in the waste market.

Antonio and Luca on stage, making their pitch to the judges

Antonio and Luca on stage, making their pitch to the judges

Overlooking all of this would be a government agency, which would obtain information about the companies participating, the quantities being recycled, the prices being paid, and most importantly, identifying clasificadores, which would allow the government to better target social policies towards them.

This proposal aims to create a win-win-win situation. For companies, it would involve less bureaucracy and cheaper disposal of waste. For government, it would provide a better oversight of the waste market, with real-time information. Most importantly, for clasificadores it would give them direct access to the materials they sell, meaning they could avoid having to go through residential waste and spend that time instead going directly to the sources of recyclable materials, thus increasing the amount they can sell. Furthermore, this would begin connecting them to the formal system, having direct contact with companies and better access to government services.

This proposal, as a first phase, aims to provide better conditions for most clasificadores, unlike other initiatives, which, although seem to be very helpful, have only reached a very limited number.


Luca Brockmann and Antonio Manzi Gari are both studying for an MSc in Public Policy and Management in the School of Management and Business at King’s College London.

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