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Kenyan waste pickers unite to bring about meaningful change

Revolution Plastics Institute

5 min read Partner content

Waste pickers from Kenya will deliver an important message to policy makers at the next round of negotiations for a global plastics treaty in Nairobi this week.

Waste pickers from Kenya will deliver an important message to policy makers at the next round of negotiations for a global plastics treaty in Nairobi this week. 

The group of waste pickers will be performing a piece of carefully orchestrated legislative theatre to delegates at the INC 3 meeting. The drama piece will raise awareness of the challenges that waste pickers confront and highlight the need for a just transition to end plastic pollution for the informal waste management sector. 

The performance will offer Plastic Treaty negotiators a unique opportunity to engage with the waste pickers who are at the front line of the plastics pollution crisis.

People who earn their living by collecting and sorting waste, known as the ‘informal waste sector’ are responsible for recovering 60 percent of post-consumer plastic waste globally and diverting huge amounts of plastic waste from polluting the environment*.  It is estimated that 15-20 million people worldwide work in the informal waste sector, and depend on it for their livelihoods**. However, the work is generally badly paid, hazardous and has low social standing***.

"There is a real risk that stakeholders and communities most impacted by plastic pollution and any potential outcomes of the global treaty are in danger of not having their voices heard, and this includes the informal waste sector."

– Dr Cressida Bowyer, Associate Professor in Arts and Sustainability and Deputy Director of Revolution Plastics at the University of Portsmouth.

Access to the treaty dialogue

Although waste pickers have now been recognised as formal stakeholders in the global plastic treaty process, access and inclusion in treaty dialogues is not equitable. More needs to be done to ensure meaningful participation for the informal sector in shaping the future of waste management.

Principal Investigator, Dr Cressida Bowyer, Associate Professor in Arts and Sustainability and Deputy Director of Revolution Plastics at the University of Portsmouth, is working with the waste pickers to help coordinate the drama piece. 

She said: “There is a real risk that stakeholders and communities most impacted by plastic pollution and any potential outcomes of the global treaty are in danger of not having their voices heard, and this includes the informal waste sector.

“We’re hoping to get the attention of negotiators with something a bit different from the reports, speeches and panels that they will be used to. The participatory nature of legislative theatre offers a unique opportunity to interact with waste pickers and gain insights into the daily challenges they encounter. Subsequent to the performance, there will be an opportunity for audience members and waste pickers to engage in meaningful dialogue and share their valuable insights.”

 "Legislative theatre is performed for audiences consisting of not only the public but also policy makers, business owners, political leaders and others who can affect systemic and institutional change."

– Dr Erika Hughes, Interim Head, School of Film, Media and Communication and Reader in Performance at the University of Portsmouth

Co-Investigator, Dr Erika Hughes, Interim Head, School of Film, Media and Communication and Reader in Performance at the University of Portsmouth, added: “Legislative theatre is performed for audiences consisting of not only the public but also policy makers, business owners, political leaders and others who can affect systemic and institutional change. 

“Typically, a short play is created around a main character who experiences key struggles within the community. The play is then performed again, but with stakeholder audience members joining the cast onstage to try out other, more positive strategies in order to bring about a different outcome. In this way, the actors and the audience ‘rehearse life’ within the safety of ‘play acting.’”

The play will be co-developed during a five-day workshop (6th-10th November) which will take place at the Dandora Transformation League building. Dandora is the location of one of the largest waste dumps in Africa.  

The finished play will be performed to an invited public audience on Friday 10th November at the Signature Auditorium, Nairobi and then to INC-3 delegates on Sunday 12th November at the Trademark Hotel, Nairobi. 

“The third session happening from 13 to 19 November in Nairobi will hopefully bring us one step closer to a legally binding instrument to end plastic pollution. As waste pickers are responsible for nearly 60% of recycling worldwide, it is essential that their voice is well represented in these negotiations. While waste-pickers are doing the ‘dirty work’ so to speak, it is hard for them to obtain a seat at the table. This event offers an opportunity for the delegates to hear from those who are most affected by the decisions made at INC-3, and to take this voice forward in the third negotiation round.”, says Elena van Doorn, from GRID-Arendal.

"While waste-pickers are doing the ‘dirty work’ so to speak, it is hard for them to obtain a seat at the table. This event offers an opportunity for the delegates to hear from those who are most affected by the decisions made at INC-3, and to take this voice forward in the third negotiation round."

– Elena van Doorn, GRID-Arendal

This is a collaboration involving creative experts from the University of Portsmouth, Theatre for Development specialist Matthew Hahn, GRID-Arendal, IUCN, the Social Justice Centre Travelling Theatre, and the Kenyan National Waste Pickers Welfare Association.

The waste pickers will be recruited by John Chweya, President of the Kenyan National Waste Pickers Welfare Association, from three informal settlements in Nairobi (Mukuru, Dandora, Kibera) and from Kisumu.  

John Chweya said: “Just transition cannot remain a concept, a shiny word that delegates agitate in front of the cameras at INC-meetings. For waste pickers, it’s a matter of life and death, and it must be turned into action at all levels, all over the world.”

This event falls under the AFRIPAC project: Effective Plastic Treaty Capacity Building for Africa, a 2-year project in which GRID-Arendal and IUCN partner to support Small Island Developing States and developing countries for increased capacity in the global plastics treaty negotiations.


*Tearfund, 2023 – https://www.tearfund.org/stories/2023/03/waste-pickers-the-hidden-heroes

**https://gridarendal-website-live.s3.amazonaws.com/production/documents/:s_document/971/original/aSeat_final.pdf?1663316145

***Karki et al., 2022; Gutberlet & Uddin, 2017 – https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/29924702/

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