Theory of Change in Waste Systems Modernisation : Hygiene, Recycling & Rights (2009)

sustainable city sanitation qnd waste recycling


The Theory of Change in city sanitation and waste value recovery initiated as citizen-led design and civil society movement of reform of municipal solid waste management. It crystallizes human-centred aspirations of progress found in global compacts and agendas, under the binding force of constitutional law and international human rights of the person and citizen.

Its final aim is to prevent both the global warming of the planet and the massive socioeconomic impoverishing of the urban poor in its global south.

The theory of change (Ruiz-Restrepo 2003, 2009, 2011) relies on the constitutional recognition and juridical affirmation of waste recycling solution as a preceding and still extant human occupation. A skill and trade of millions of citizens who are now a vulnerable occupational group of the population, a tradecraft that existed long ago in every country of the world and continues to exist today in most cities of developing countries.

Constitutionally recognized as work following the change envisioned the State is forced to respect and secure through policy making their right to decent work and freedom of development. A government must reform sanitation law, waste policy and recycling regulation to graduate the entrepreneurial work of the occupational group of waste pickers by trade from the submerged exploitative economy of informal waste trading into the mainstream formal economy of urban sanitation, borough recycling, and the overall circular economy of waste at large.

Valorising city waste as opposed to burying tons of it under the soil is an important civic and governmental objective. That it doesn’t create or deepen poverty along the way is an equally important decency and solidarity objective. By taking advantage of the scientific and technological innovation that waste-to-energy and waste-to-commodities represent for urban hygiene and sanitation, the theory of change redesigns the economic and environmentally friendly recycling solution into a systemic poverty reduction one also. It creates a stable and wide avenue for local development and inclusive growth; fair and green waste management.

The goal of reaching levels of Zero Waste in landfills for the sake of global climate change prevention is important but not more important than its original goal of securing decent levels of public health and urban hygiene in the local level of cities in industrially developing countries. To achieve the modernisation of waste in a manner that along the way doesn’t impoverish thousands of traditional waste-pickers but instead corrects the structural poverty traps and redistributes opportunities in the community along and around the new emerging source of wealth that waste constitutes an equitable solution for developing countries. Past and recent agendas such as the sustainable development goals, the decent job agenda, green jobs, OECD MNE, Global Compact, Business and human rights all underpin the need of such a structural reform. Moreover, it illustrates the importance of legal protection and justiciability for human socioeconomic rights and systemic solutions in law in times of globalisation. The lessons learnt on the extreme pauperisation and unrest caused in past industrial revolutions should be central in the political economy debate, juridical reasoning, legal drafting and regulation of the nascent fourth industrial revolution.

The theory of change explains that poverty-trapped informal and traditional waste pickers who have created a skill, a craft and a trade out of salvaging and valorising city waste currently have their livelihoods menaced by the automation of sorting and classification systems of industrial recycling that are sought to be sold and implemented to cities in the global south. Some even unscrupulously seek to deregulate sanitation in developing countries to leave trash freely available at the disposal of market forces and profit maximization of waste buyers and the formation of monopsonies of secondary commodities, regardless of the hygiene and health risks such deregulation entails for the urban conglomerates of the south.

To prevent this, waste pickers, the theory foresees, are asserted in their right to have rights as a citizen and person within the emerging new waste economy. To enjoy a fair and equal treatment that juridically empowers them as economic actors instead of barely surviving in the outskirts of society as passive occasional recipients of public assistance, private philanthropy or corporate social responsibility, relief for the poor in times when the market and survival niche of the poverty trapped was turned in the economy’s centre-stage.

Planning and providing waste management services to the city inhabitants whether directly by a municipality company or by procuring such services from a private service provider of private entities is a matter of planning and decision of the State, of the local mayor and council. Secure access as in legal, steady and stable access to work with the waste stream is what public procurement and tariff retribution ensure. Scaling up the size and mode of the existing entrepreneurial operations of traditional waste pickers to become private entrepreneurial service providers, if not municipal employees, is the gateway to admitting and facilitating the inclusion of the social and solidarity entities in which the vulnerable waste pickers have traditionally organised their undertaking. As private solidaristic entrepreneurs, they may be formally contracted and retributed in the service provision of recyclable waste value and recovery -city sanitation services- to the community.

It is entirely in the power of political authorities to decide and regulate the modes of exploitation of the new above-the-ground material, an endless source of wealth that XXIst century trash is.

That is why access and inclusion need to be juridically reinforced by an affirmative action since the extremely coveted city waste is also the material resource on which the right to life/survival and to development/enterprise of the extremely urban poor entirely depend on.

The non-mechanised social enterprise recycling opportunity that is safe-kept for human development remains coherent with the need of carbon print reduction that recycling is all about in the first place. The truthful effectiveness of sustainable development in the form of recycling for nature preservation, lowering carbon emissions and social inclusion is turned into an observable and traceable system of city sanitation admitting citizen engagement and oversight. Climate change prevention is turned local, popular and real and prevented from diversion to recycling evangelization for free commodities and increased profits in unscrupulous business as usual.

In the practice, the theory of change is substantially social innovation design to give traction on the ground to constitutional freedoms and global policy agendas. The economic enablement of existing law and regulation on the freedom to develop and specially protect vulnerable sectors of civil society. As such the theory of change begins and ends by redressing the playing field for their prototypical legal vehicles of operation; it levels out the playing field of non-profit entities vis-a-vis the for-profit entities. It legally and administratively secures equal treatment to entities as development vehicles to allow for the existence and operation of both the capital-based and solidarity-based enterprising of the people in the marketplace.