Everybody is talking about green jobs. Well, at least about the more glamorous and desirable ones: green architects, wind power engineers, solar technicians, etc. But by far the most numerous green jobs in the world–at least 15 million–are a little bit like a dirty secret: community waste recyclers.
All too often, municipal administrations try to be rid of them and replace them with for-profit contractors. But the community groups account for a sizable share of recycling–perhaps as much as 20 percent in some parts of the world, according to Bharati Chaturvedi of Delhi-based Chintan Environmental Research and Action Group. They do recycling work more cheaply, and they provide waste picking and recycling services in areas where their commercial competitors wouldn’t think of going. And while these are certainly not highly desirable jobs, they provide bitterly-needed incomes for the urban poor.
But Chaturvedi notes in a New York Times op-ed that “as housing values and the cost of oil have fallen worldwide, so too has the price of scrap metal, paper and plastic.” This is causing mounting hardships for the recyclers.
I had a chance to meet Bharati earlier this year when she visited New York City, and it quickly became clear to me that she is one of the smartest and effective advocates for the need to combine environmental protection and social justice.
In her op-ed, she offers ideas how governments can provide support to community recyclers in the current situation. But she underlines that the recyclers will ultimately fare better only if they can integrate into the formal economy, which offers better wages. Licensing, expanded doorstep-collection programs, and other measures can help advance this goal.
Such policies are not nearly as glamorous as developing the latest in thin-film solar cells, pushing wind farms to the offshore frontier, or building high-speed trains. But they are equally important for creating a greener economy. And they are nothing but essential if we are to build an economy that offers more decent ways of earning a living.