TIANJIN, China — Maya Khodave normally spends her days rummaging through rubbish dumps in a crowded Indian city but this week she is in China to offer herself as part of the solution to tackling global warming.
Dressed in a colourful sari, the slightly built 23-year-old has dazzled amid a wall of dark-suited negotiators at United Nations climate change talks while trying to raise awareness about the value of waste pickers around the world.
"We play a very important role in the environment, yet our work is not recognised," Khodave told reporters on the sidelines of the event in Tianjin, her voice strong and loud but tears occasionally welling in her eyes.
There are about 15 million people in cities across the developing world who survive by collecting rubbish, according to the Global Anti-Incinerator Alliance (GAIA), a non-government organisation that brought Khodave to China.
People such as Khodave can play an important role in combating climate change because they cheaply and efficiently gather materials such as paper, metal and organic waste, then sort them and send them off for recycling.
"For one tonne of paper we gather for recycling, we save 17 trees," Khodave said.
However, while the UN process under the Kyoto Protocol rewards companies for burning waste and extracting gas from landfill, the waste pickers and recycling have been ignored.
Through a UN programme called the Clean Development Mechanism (CDM), polluting companies in rich countries can claim "carbon credits" by supporting projects in developing nations that reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
CDM has backed 186 waste-to-energy projects, primarily landfill gas and incinerators, in countries such as India, but so far no recycling projects have been funded, according to the GAIA.
The waste-to-energy projects are backed through the CDM because they are seen as helping reduce emissions of greenhouse gases that are blamed for global warming.
But Khodave said the CDM projects were devastating for waste pickers' livelihoods because it meant they often got far less access to rubbish.
Private companies would often come in to cities to collect the waste for the incinerators, while guards would protect the rubbish at landfills, she said.
"These companies are burning waste and making briquettes from it. What this means is we cannot make compost anymore, we are not able to send the materials for recycling," said Khodave, who is a leader of an Indian waste pickers union.
Making matters worse, the waste-to-energy projects were often not nearly as green as they claimed, according to GAIA's climate change director, Neil Tangri, who was also in Tianjin for the UN talks.
Tangri said landfills leaked significant amounts of methane, an extremely potent greenhouse gas, while waste incinerators emitted a third more carbon dioxide than coal-fired power plants to produce the same amount of energy.
"The irony is that not only do they have direct emissions of their own... they reduce the amount of recycling," Tangri said.
Promoting recycling would be a much effective way for the UN to help deal with waste in developing countries, according to Tangri.
GAIA and a small group of other NGOs are calling on the UN to support waste pickers by providing them with support through a planned climate fund that is being discussed during the Tianjin talks.
The climate fund is part of a complex package of initiatives countries are trying to establish as part of a hoped-for global pact to curb greenhouse gases.
But the waste pickers' campaign is as much about raising awareness and securing recognition as it is about money, according to Tangri.
"They are the poorest of the poor, governments don't like to deal with them, society doesn't have much respect for them," he said.
Copyright © 2013 AFP. All rights reserved. More »