Expert Q&A about waste pickers hit hard by pandemic

Social Sciences

UVic geographer Jutta Gutberlet unloads some bottles with a Victoria waste picker at the Queens St Bottle Depot location in April. Credit: Greg Escott.

Workers who pick through waste to earn money from collecting glass and other recyclable materials are among the world’s most vulnerable people. UVic geographer Jutta Gutberlet, who works with waste pickers—or binners, as they’re often called—in Victoria and Brazil says the COVID-19 pandemic has hit this population hard. Many bottle depots have closed in BC, and in Brazil, governments have stopped most recycling programs and many businesses associated with the industry have closed. 

On Earth Day, Gutberlet talks about her efforts to develop health brochures, leaflets and posters to help keep these workers, who play an important role in diverting waste from landfill, safe. 

Q. How has COVID-19 affected people who sort through waste in Victoria and in Brazil?

A. Waste pickers in Brazil and diverters (or binners) in Victoria are specifically affected by COVID-19 because they handle discarded material, such as glass, paper, plastic and metals, which can retain the virus for a span of up to five days. Waste pickers in lower income countries, and also on a much smaller scale in Canada, often have no other income sources, so despite the risk, their only option is to continue to work in the streets or at dumps, where they don’t have access to running water, soap or sanitizer. 

Q. You do community outreach work through the Diverters Project in Victoria and internationally with the Waste Workers Occupational Safety and Health (WWOSH) Committee, as well as other partners. How are people coping with these conditions during the pandemic?

A. I spoke with my contacts in Brazil, Argentina, Tanzania and Kenya, as well as with the diverters in Canada, about how they are being affected by the pandemic. The situation is very bleak. Marcelo, a waste picker in Buenos Aires, Argentina, told me that they don’t have access to hand sanitizer because it costs money, and they also don’t have access to soap and running water while working in the streets collecting recyclable materials. They can’t just stop working, otherwise they would not eat. I received a similar response from Patrick, a diverter in Victoria, who said that the impact is very significant with businesses, such as restaurants, shutting down. They’ve lost all their revenue. Initially, there was a lot of chaos at the bottle depots, so going there with bottles to make up for the lost income meant taking a chance on getting sick. 

Q. Why did you decide to help produce the public health notices?

A. We knew from experience that informal waste pickers could not or would not stop working despite the risks of transmitting the virus through contaminated materials. There was no information available to them about how to protect themselves from becoming infected. Through the WWOSH committee and the international organization, Women in Informal Employment: Globalizing and Organizing, we prepared informational material, including leaflets, brochures and posters, to inform diverters and waste pickers about the risks, and how to protect themselves, based on information from the World Health Organization. We have distributed the posters electronically through our research networks through the Mapping Waste Governance project in Brazil and Canada and other countries, where they will reach local communities. 

Q. How have waste management and recycling practices changed since COVID-19?

A. The novel coronavirus has interrupted recycling programs in many cities, including in São Paulo, Brazil, where all materials collected from households are now landfilled. This affects many waste picker cooperatives that have operated recycling programs in the city. These workers have been promised to receive a monthly compensation of CAD$160, which is not enough to live off or to maintain a family. 

In Victoria, a lot of bottle depots are closed, so some binners continue to collect and store the bottles and cans at a safe location until the bottle depots open again. But, as Patrick, one of Victoria’s diverters says, they face more competition on “bottle runs” because people aren’t going out to parks and beaches to socialize and tourism is down, which means there are fewer bottles to collect. And now more people who have lost their jobs are picking up bottles to boost their income. 

Q. It’s Earth Day. What does the future of recycling look like for countries such as Brazil and Canada?

A. The current situation will certainly impact the future success of recycling in Brazil. Waste picker cooperatives may not be able to continue to operate. Households will be de-motivated to separate their materials. This could lead to less incentive for recycling and a push toward waste incineration despite the negative health and environmental impacts. 

In Canada, COVID-19 will most certainly hit the recycling industry. With some recycling services suspended and reduced work hours, fewer materials are being recovered and more waste is deposited at the landfill. Extra plastic wrapping, disposable masks, gloves and tissues are being added to waste generated at homes too. 

A media kit containing high-resolution photos of Jutta Gutberlet is available on Dropbox


Media contacts

Jutta Gutberlet (Dept. of Geography) at

Anne MacLaurin (Social Sciences Communications) at 250-217-4259 or

Stephanie Harrington (University Communications + Marketing ) at 250-721-6248 or

In this story

Keywords: COVID, environment, health, geography, pandemic, international

People: Jutta Gutberlet

Related stories