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Waste pickers take centre stage

Revolution Plastics Institute

4 min read Partner content

Waste pickers from Kenya delivered a powerful and unique message to policymakers at the beginning of the third round of plastics treaty negotiations in Nairobi this week.

Waste pickers from Kenya delivered a powerful and unique message to policymakers at the beginning of the third round of plastics treaty negotiations in Nairobi this week. 

In an extraordinary theatre performance, waste pickers took their challenges to the heart of negotiations, offering a dramatic insight into the difficulties they face and advocating for recognition, integration and inclusion in the global treaty process and associated outcomes. 

The legislative theatre piece was devised and performed by 12 Kenyan waste pickers working alongside theatre facilitators from the UK and Kenya. It raised awareness of the hurdles they encounter daily, emphasising how policy shifts could help to ensure a just transition for waste pickers within the global plastic treaty.   This distinct form of theatre encouraged the audience to interact with the actors, and provided plastics treaty negotiators with an unprecedented opportunity to engage directly with those on the frontline of the plastics pollution crisis. 

Waste pickers play a critical role in cleaning the environment. Numbering over 20 million worldwide, waste pickers are responsible for recovering around 60 per cent of post-consumer plastic waste globally.  Challenges for waste pickers include poor and unregulated rates of pay, exposure to health hazards, and low social standing. Importantly, waste pickers are excluded from decision making processes that directly affect their livelihoods.  

I am deeply honoured to have played a part in bringing the voices of waste pickers to the forefront of global discussions on plastic pollution.  The theatre performance was a powerful and innovative way to communicate the challenges faced by waste pickers, directly to policymakers. 

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

Principal Investigator, Dr Cressida Bowyer, Associate Professor in Arts and Sustainability and Deputy Director of Revolution Plastics at the University of Portsmouth, worked with the waste pickers to help coordinate the drama piece. She said: “I am deeply honoured to have played a part in bringing the voices of waste pickers to the forefront of global discussions on plastic pollution.  The theatre performance was a powerful and innovative way to communicate the challenges faced by waste pickers, directly to policymakers.  Legislative theatre has the potential to transform perceptions and understanding, amplifying the voices of those who have expert on-the-ground knowledge so that they can help shape a sustainable future for waste management.”

The theatre piece was co-developed during a five-day workshop held in the informal settlement Dandora, Nairobi. The team was composed of University of Portsmouth experts in arts-based research Dr Erika Hughes and Dr Cressida Bowyer, Theatre for Development specialist Matthew Hahn, and the Social Justice Centre Travelling Theatre, plus representatives from the Kenyan National Waste Pickers Welfare Association. The show, which also included music, plastic fashion and spoken word, was performed several times to public audiences - first at the Dandora waste dumping site, then in a professional theatre in Nairobi, and finally to negotiators and delegates of the Treaty.

This incredible community of waste pickers used the stage to present authentic scenes and stories from their real lives. They then transformed the theatre into a forum for discussion and exchange between waste pickers and policymakers about how best to advocate for sustainable and ethical decisions for the future.

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

Dr Erika Hughes, Interim Head of the School of Film, Media and Communication at the University of Portsmouth, said: “This was one of the most powerful experiences of my entire career.  This incredible community of waste pickers used the stage to present authentic scenes and stories from their real lives. They then transformed the theatre into a forum for discussion and exchange between waste pickers and policymakers about how best to advocate for sustainable and ethical decisions for the future.” 

Esther Muthoni, one of the waste pickers and actors in the performance, said: “We had a message to deliver and we delivered it”. 

Based on verbal feedback from national delegations, industry representatives, scientists and international waste picker organisations who attended the performance, the team is confident that they have fostered a deeper understanding and consideration of waste pickers and hope that this will be reflected during Treaty negotiations. 

The project was funded by Grid-Arendal and Revolution Plastics, and the performances were further supported by IUCN and NoRad. 

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