UB research study shows the working conditions of scrap metal dealers and their role in the recycling process in Barcelona

In Barcelona, there are more than 3,000 informal recyclers, or “chatarreros”, who collect various metals, basically iron, aluminium, copper and steel, from the streets and containers. They work on average about sixty hours a week and earn less than five hundred euros a month, i.e. 40% of the minimum wage. Only half of them manage to live in shared flats, while the rest live on the streets. Although they do not have any kind of contract or protection, they maintain non-confrontational relations with the city’s neighbours and construction workers, while making an important contribution to metal recycling in the city. These are some conclusions of the Wastecare research project, carried out by our researcher Federico Demaria, and UB Faculty of Economics and Business researchers Julián Porras and Daniele Vico.

The researchers estimate from the survey that the vast majority of informal waste pickers are men (94%), of recent immigration, and 63% are younger than forty years old. Seventy-five per cent are immigrants from Africa (mainly Senegal), followed by Romania (17%), Latin America (3%) and Asia (3%). Seventy-eight percent of them do not have a Foreigner Identity Number (NIE). “For most of them, the activity as an informal waste recycler is a survival strategy in the face of the impossibility of accessing the formal labour market because they have no papers”, note the researchers.

According to the data collected, a scrap metal dealer collects an average of 118 kilograms per day. If the number of scrap dealers in Barcelona is calculated at 3,200, this means that every day this group collects around 380 tonnes of metal in the city, and every year more than 100,000 tonnes. Fifty-seven percent of the informal recyclers surveyed reported frequent contact with neighbours and 49% with construction workers. In some cases, scrap dealers have direct contact with neighbours who tell them when they want to dump metal or other objects.

The visibility of informal waste recyclers is evident; 83% of households report seeing them in the neighbourhood. Interactions between households and waste pickers are relatively common; over 30% of households surveyed have positive interactions with waste pickers. These interactions include giving them items (28%), talking to them (12%), providing them with food (8%) and seeking their help in waste management (12%). Sixty-six percent of citizens surveyed who leave items next to containers say they do so with the understanding that they will be picked up by scavengers. The motivations behind this practice are mainly driven by the desire to avoid waste (70%), facilitate reuse (59%) and help recyclers (39%). These items range from reusable goods such as clothes (57%), shoes (52%), books (32%) and toys (29%) to recyclable materials such as metal kitchenware (39%) and furniture (55%). In addition, electronic provisions (35 %) are left for both re-use and recycling. This behaviour shows a tacit support system where households facilitate the work of waste pickers by providing them with valuable materials.

The researchers conclude that “public perception of informal waste pickers in Barcelona is generally positive”. Seventy-five percent of the households surveyed, for example, believe that they contribute to sustainability. Respondents are also willing to take collaborative action to support waste pickers. For example, 76% are willing to call a waste pickers’ cooperative. In addition, 68% think that the municipality should hire waste pickers. The researchers conclude that waste management is a collaborative effort involving several interdependent actors, and among these actors are informal recyclers.

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