Recovering waste, recovering voices: recycling and empowerment in Latin America and Scotland

Victoria Lee
Friday 2 February 2024

In the movement toward sustainability, recycling, waste, and plastics have assumed major significance in global conversations. But understanding how plastic recycling and waste management can align with people and planet will require more than just ecological and economic analyses – their social dynamics are also a major point of consideration. Dr Patrick O’Hare is a UKRI Future Leaders Fellow in the Department of Social Anthropology, whose work with recycling economies and waste pickers in Latin America examines the role of people in wider issues of labour, waste, and circular economies. Currently, his research is informing two major initiatives: advising on policy for the UN’s forthcoming Plastic Pollution Treaty, and running cartonera bookbinding workshops with vulnerable groups in Scotland. Both experiences work to strengthen and highlight the relationship between recycling and the lived experiences of people around the world.

Global impact: The UN Plastic Pollution Treaty

O’Hare’s research is primarily based in Uruguay, where waste-picking, or gathering recyclable materials from refuse and selling it to industry, comprises the livelihood of a group of people referred to as clasificadores. Through his work with this community of waste-pickers, he has examined Uruguayan intersections with social and cooperative economics, the plastics industry, and diverse types of business, such as rural plastic recycling. During his fieldwork, O’Hare learned through living and working with waste-pickers that the community shares a deep-rooted connection to waste work; they can earn more from it than other forms of work, and unlike conventional perspectives on waste-picking, they considered their work dignified.

O’Hare and his colleagues collaborate to empower and learn from waste-pickers

His close relationship with the community of clasificadores led O’Hare to become a civil society advisor for environmental NGOs during the development of Uruguay’s national waste action plan, eventually taking him into his current role: an advisor at the UN Plastic Pollution Treaty, an international legally binding instrument on plastic pollution that is currently being negotiated. O’Hare is part of the Scientists Coalition for an Effective Plastics Treaty (SCEPT), linking the local context of plastic production and waste pickers with wider treaty processes through writing policy briefs and co-chairing working groups. Part of his work also includes advising waste-pickers, ensuring that they can be empowered  rather than disadvantaged by the treaty process. This is particularly important in the context of the increasing professionalisation of waste management services, which poses a threat to clasificadores’ access to waste.  Through the lens of social science, O’Hare works to ensure that SCEPT’s findings on extended producer responsibility, chemical recycling, and just transition adequately consider and empower the perspectives and needs of local communities.

Uplifting voices through bookbinding: cartonera

On the other side of the Atlantic Ocean, and on an individual level, O’Hare also works on the connection between recycling and vulnerable groups as part of the Cartonera Publishing Research Project: cardboard bookmaking inspired by the Argentinian cartonera movement. During the 2001 financial crisis in Argentina, cartonera books (books made of recycled cardboard), became a widespread craft as the amount of people selling recycled material as livelihood increased. The cartonera movement emphasises affordability and access to literature, and the dissemination of the bookmaking skill itself to empower individual publishing ventures with accessible materials. O’Hare has conducted fieldwork with cartonera publishers in Mexico and translated his expertise into cartonera workshops for communities around Scotland. He has brought the cartonera practice to schoolchildren in Fife through the First Chances Fife programme, as well as to people recovering from addiction in Glasgow, who published scripts from their drama therapy performances in cartonera form. As in his work with SCEPT, O’Hare’s project centres on recycling and uses it as a tool to uplift the voices of vulnerable people. On a local and global large scale, these conversations are shedding new light on the underrepresented – but fundamental – social aspect of recycling and waste management.

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