Informal Waste Collectors and the Struggle for Environmental Justice in North Macedonia 

Despite dire living conditions and discrimination, Roma communities in North Macedonia play a significant role in reducing landfill waste. They must be recognised, protected, and engaged in shaping sustainable waste management policies, write Lorena Doghi and Diego Francisco Marin.

Roma communities continue to face significant disadvantages as one of Europe’s most marginalised minority groups. Alongside numerous forms of discrimination, environmental racism and injustice have emerged as critical concerns affecting Roma. Many Roma settlements in Central and Eastern Europe are situated in segregated areas on the outskirts of smaller towns or isolated villages. Due to their socio-economic status and limited political influence, these communities bear the brunt of environmental hazards and pollution. 

A key example is North Macedonia. Roma communities make up 2.5% of the Balkan country’s population and are the most vulnerable minority in the country, and generally confront systemic deprivation, with many residing in precarious circumstances. The poverty rate within the Roma communities in North Macedonia significantly surpasses the national average. According to a 2021 Roma survey conducted by the Fundamental Rights Agency, poverty rates among the Roma community is double that of the general population. Roma individuals experience a severe lack of essential resources at a rate of 62%, in contrast to the national poverty rate of 30%. 

Due to a lack of formal employment opportunities and a lack of financial support from the government, a substantial number of Roma individuals turn to the informal sector for work. Many Roma individuals and families find themselves compelled to rely on the collection and recycling of materials like plastics, metals, and cardboard to earn a living. The informal recycling sector, in particular, provides a livelihood for around 3,000 to 5,000 individuals on any given day, most being of Roma origin. The informal recycling sector remains a significant source of income, and the main income for about 1/3 of Roma informal recyclers. However, waste pickers encounter a myriad of challenges, ranging from health hazards to dependence on international market fluctuations, and in certain instances, even the threat of criminalisation. 

Case Studies in North Macedonia 

A EEB report titled Between Circularity, Environmental Justice and Slow Violence: The case of Roma, Informal Recycle Communities in North Macedonia explores the environmental injustices in North Macedonia in relation to the informal recycling sector by looking into five case studies of disadvantaged Roma communities largely involved in the informal recycling sector. These communities grapple with the absence of necessities like effective waste management, access to clean water, consistent electricity supply, and adequate heating. This situation, exacerbated by the growing occurrence of extreme weather events, such as sweltering summers and severe winters, takes a severe toll on their health and overall quality of life. To illustrate, the ASNOM community situated in the Kocani municipality faces dire challenges, including the absence of essential amenities like water supply, sewage systems, and electricity. The dire state of housing maintenance is a matter of significant concern for residents, who express their apprehension about the imminent risk of house collapses. 

In general, the absence of proper infrastructure leads to frequent flooding and muddy roads within various communities and increase their vulnerability to infections and chronic diseases. One community in Shtip municipality live in an abandoned neurology ward in an inadequate building without basic infrastructure and utilities such as access to sewage or drainage systems. They live in overcrowded, substandard conditions which lead to health issues caused by moisture, mould and constant flooding. Another community of 700-800 people in Bitola municipality lives in cardboard and makeshift dwellings. Near their houses, informal waste collectors recover the metals and wires which when burnt contribute to air pollution due to the toxins and becomes harmful to breath in these toxins. 

Access to waste materials is of utmost importance for these waste pickers and during the pandemic lockdowns their ability to obtain recyclables became extremely challenging, exacerbated by a lack of understanding and support from official institutions. An incident in Shuto Orizari serves as a stark example, where two underage members of the community, attempting to collect bottles during a lockdown, were apprehended by the police, who subjected them to physical harm and charged them with theft. 

In this sector, parents and children frequently engage in waste collection as a family business. However, as this occupation is typically informal, it offers meagre compensation and fails to provide essential social and health benefits or pension rights. Their daily income is about 1000 MKD (16 euro). According to a report by the Roma Entrepreneurship Development Initiative (REDI), the average income distribution to all responding households is between 161 to 272 euros monthly, which is below the minimum salary in the country (300 euros). 

The role of women and children as informal waste collectors 

In terms of gender, women waste collectors face several challenges in a largely male dominated sector, including limited access to materials due to men monopolising the highest value materials and seizing first access to materials at both landfills and on the streets. Additionally, women waste collectors are more likely to report common mental health disorders than their male counterparts, which could be due to women waste collectors experiencing more stress in trying to secure a basic income. The physical challenge of transporting heavy loads of recyclables back to their sorting areas at the end of the day contributes to many women street waste collectors picking lighter materials, working in smaller areas, and migrating to landfills.   

While women also take part in the recycling activities in additional to family raising care duties, they also earn a lot less money. According to REDI’s report, out of the Roma waste collectors surveyed, 80% of participants in the waste collection are male, while the remaining 20% are female, and in some cases there were no female waste collectors at all. 

Roma children, along with their parents, are engaged in labour-intensive work in conditions characterized by dirt, unpleasant odours, and the looming risk of injury from sharp objects due to a lack of adequate safety materials. For families involved in the informal recycling sector, their daily lives are marked by precarity. Waste collection is an ongoing, year-round endeavour, with no breaks for holidays or weekends. The materials collected daily are often stored in their courtyards or in proximity to their houses. This work involves a series of activities, including the selection, collection, transportation, and sale of waste to purchasing companies.  

The analysis of available data indicates that 90% of waste collectors do not enroll their children up to the age of 6 in kindergarten, and the percentage of children between the ages of 6 and 14 not attending primary school is notably high at 65%. Furthermore, the survey reveals that approximately 14% of children under the age of 14 are directly involved in waste collection work, either on a daily basis or occasionally. 

Slow Violence and Waste Collectors 

Informal waste collectors are sometimes criminalised because the access to waste is technically illegal. Coupled with discrimination against Roma, this can lead to violence and abuse. This continuous cycle of hardship and dehumanisation, largely driven by the state, can be described as a type of social violence rooted in societal and governmental structures. Additionally, Roma communities are seen as victims of “slow violence,” a concept that means ongoing harm that builds up over time, often going unnoticed, and spreading across different places and periods. Slow violence relates to forms of harm that accumulate quietly and escape public attention. This is a significant challenge for environmental justice because policymakers tend to overlook injustices that build up over time. 

The idea of slow violence is like a repeating process that causes “epistemic violence,” where certain knowledge and experiences are undervalued in policymaking, leading to structural violence. It’s essential to give weight to the knowledge of communities living in polluted areas and to expose the political systems that support unequal pollution levels. Overall, addressing slow violence requires building a better understanding of environmental racism and advocating for policy changes at the European Union and Member State levels to address the environmental inequalities experienced by many communities in Europe. 

The Environmental Benefits of Informal Waste Collectors  

However, in spite of the significant challenges faced by Roma waste collectors in North Macedonia, their substantial environmental contribution to society is frequently overlooked. The informal waste collection sector plays a pivotal role in diminishing the volume of waste sent to landfills, a critical environmental concern in the country. Waste collectors engage in the collection and salvage of discarded materials through repurposing items that would otherwise be discarded. For instance, approximately 80% of recycled packaging waste is gathered and sorted by informal waste collectors. Through these efforts, they actively reduce the quantity of waste destined for landfills, reducing the environmental consequences of waste disposal. On average, each waste collector in North Macedonia manages the waste generated by approximately 27 North Macedonians per month, while contributing to the recycling of 40% of raw materials and handling about 3% of municipal waste. 

Municipalities should not overlook or criminalise informal waste collectors; instead, they should acknowledge and formalise their roles, granting them legal recognition and access to social safeguards. Additionally, it is essential to engage waste collectors in shaping and executing waste management policies and initiatives. This inclusion ensures that their specific needs and perspectives are considered, leading to tailored programs that align with their circumstances. Furthermore, providing training and support to enhance waste collectors’ skills and understanding of waste management practices is crucial. 

Ultimately, establishing partnerships among waste collectors, local authorities, and other stakeholders is necessary to encourage collaboration and cooperation in waste management efforts. Through the implementation of these measures, North Macedonia can integrate informal waste collectors into the formal waste management system, enhance their working conditions, and foster sustainable waste management practices.