Plastic bottles
Plastic bottles, Dar es Salaam
Photo: Göteborgs universitet

Recycling Networks

Research project
Active research
Project size
Project period
2016 - 2021
Project owner
Gothenburg Research Institute

Short description

Millions of informal waste pickers collect household waste daily in cities around the globe to earn a living. In doing so they make a significant contribution to reducing the carbon footprint of cities, recovering resources, improving environmental conditions and health of low-income residents, creating jobs and income among the poor.

Recycling Networks – grassroots resilience tackling climate, environmental and poverty challenges

Aim and research questions

The project aims at examining the challenges that innovative grassroots networks encounter and the livelihoods they generate, to improve recycling and household waste collection in informal settlements of global South cities. Strengthening of such initiatives, networks and practices promotes grassroots resilience, contribute to reduce both the adverse impact of cities on climate and environmental change (UN sustainable development target 11.6) as well as urban poverty (UN sustainable development goal 8). The project offers a critical inter- and transdisciplinary perspective on the issue of organizing resilience against climate and environmental change through grassroots initiatives such as cooperatives, associations, communitybased organizations, public-private partnerships and networks.

Field work, Kisumu, Kenya
Field work, Kisumu, Kenya photo: Patrik Zapata
Photo: Göteborgs universitet

The project addresses the following questions:

Q1. Processes: How do these grassroots initiatives and networks operate to bring about socio-environmental and economic change?
Q2. Challenges: What are the organizational, institutional, social, and material challenges encountered in the creation, development and stabilization of these initiatives and
Q3. Opportunities: How can such difficulties be overcome?


The project's methodology is inspired by participatory action research through a combination of:
a) a multiple case study on waste picker initiatives in Managua (Nicaragua), Dar es Salaam (Tanzania), Buenos Aires (Argentina) Sâo Paulo (Brazil) and Kisumu (Kenya), based on interviews, observations, workshops and document analysis.
b) joint knowledge co-production with regional and global waste picker networks performing as knowledge hubs for the project.
c) An in-depth case study of the city of Kisumu, where the learnings from the multi-case studies will be integrated.
d) International joint research and waste picker seminars to co-produce knowledge to conceptualize solutions to the challenges.


Theoretically, the project will contribute to applying and expanding a combination of theories of socio-environmental (e.g. Mair & Marti 2006) and institutional entrepreneurship (e.g. Hardy & MacGuire 2008) with resilience (e.g. Folke, 2006) and grassroots innovation theories (e.g. Smith et al, 2017).

Preliminary results

•The potential of informal recycling networks to create green employment growth and recycling jobs among low-income residents.
•Waste management pilot projects supporting social entrepreneurs have transformed city management practices in informal settlements, leading towards hybrid models that
combine formal and informal practices, with modern and traditional technologies.
•Small-scale waste pickers initiatives providing household waste collection in informal settlements provide innovative solutions driven by a rationality to address social and
environmental challenges in their neighborhoods.
•They also transform the institutional arrangements improving political, legal and organizational conditions for the delivery of environmental services; challenge notions of the public and
responsibility in environmental governance .
•Unlike the standardized knowledge generated by donors and international organizations through ‘best practices’, easy to pack but often difficult to replicate in other contexts, these
South-to- South bottom-up networks bring in locally developed, innovative and flexible solutions, and also learnings from their failures.
•The co-production of novel knowledge by practitioners and scholars, that help understanding the challenges of grassroots resilience for a low carbon society, in the context of Southern cities.


Articles in scientific journals:

Zapata Campos, María José, Ester Barinaga, Jaan.-Henrik Kain, Michael Oloko & Patrik Zapata, (2022). Organising grassroots infrastructure: The (in)visible work of organisational (in)completeness. Urban Studies

Gutberlet, J (2021) Grassroots waste picker organizations addressing the UN sustainable development goals, World Development, online first

Zapata Campos MJ, Carenzo S, Kain J-H, Oloko M, Reynosa JP, Zapata P (2020) Inclusive recycling movements: a green deep democracy from below. Environment and Urbanization, online first. doi:10.1177/0956247820967621 

Charles, G (2019) Sustainability of Social Enterprises Involved in Waste Collection and Recycling Activities: Lessons from Tanzania, Journal of Social Entrepreneurship, DOI: 10.1080/19420676.2019.1686712 

Carenzo, S. and M. Schmuckler (2018) Hacia una ontología política del diseño cartonero: reflexiones etnográficas a partir de la experiencia de la cooperativa Reciclando Sueños (La Matanza, Argentina). Inmaterial. Diseño, arte y sociedad, Vol. 3(5): 53-80.

Sobral Santos, M.L. & Gutberlet, J. (2018) Transformando relações entre sociedade e resíduos. Caderno Diálogos Socioambientais na Macrometrópole, nº1 (Dez.): 30-37. 

Gutberlet, J. & Uddin, S. M. N. (2018) Household waste and health risks affecting waste pickers and the environment in low- and middle-income countries. Int J of Occupational and Environmental Health

Uddin, S. M. N. & Gutberlet, J. (2018) Livelihoods and health status of informal recyclers in Mongolia. Resources, Conservation & Recycling 134: 1–9.

Gutberlet, J. Kain, J.H., Nyakinya, B, Oloko, M., Zapata, P., Zapata Campos, M.J. (2017) Bridging Weak Links of Solid Waste Management in Informal Settlements, Journal of Environment & Development, 2017, Vol. 26(1) 106–131

Gutberlet, J.; Carenzo, S.; Kain, J-H.; & de Azevedo, A. M. M. (2017) Waste Picker Organizations and Their Contribution to the Circular Economy: Two Case Studies from a Global South Perspective. Resources 6 (52): 1-12.

Carenzo, S. (2017) Invisibilized creativity: Sociogenesis of an “innovation” process developed by "cartoneros" for post-consumption waste recycling. International Journal on Engineering, Social Justice and Peace (IJESJP), 5(1-2), 30-49. 

Book chapters
Carenzo, S. 2017. “Fétichismes de la matière jetée: une économie morale de la gestion des déchets dans la région métropolitaine de Buenos Aires, Argentine”. In: Anstett, E. y N. Ortar (Eds). Jeux de pouvoir dans nos poubelles. Économies morales et politiques du recyclage au tournant du XXIe siècle. Paris: Ed. Petra. ISBN 978-284-743-172-8

Gutberlet, J. (2018). Waste in the City: Challenges and Opportunities for Urban Agglomerations, Urban Agglomeration, (Ed.), InTech, DOI: 10.5772/intechopen.72047. 


C Goodluck, J Gutberlet, A.M.M. de Azevedo, S Carenzo, JH Kain, M.O. Oloko, J Pérez Reynosa, P Zapata, M.J. Zapata Campos (2021) Sustainable Waste Collection and Recycling for Inclusive Cities: Report on Updated Research Outcomes of the Project Recycling Networks & Waste Governance. ISBN 978-1-7776032-0-5 

Zapata Campos MJ, Barinaga E, Kain JH, Oloko M & Zapata P (2019). Organising grassroots initiatives for a more inclusive governance: constructing the city from below. ICLD RESEARCH REPORT NO 15

Kain, JH, Oloko, M, Zapata, P, Zapata, MJ (2017) Co-production of Waste Management Services in Informal Settlements. Swedish Research Center for Local Democracy. ICLD: Malmö. ISBN 978-91-86725-24-2

Acevedo, A. Carenzo, S., Goodluck, C., Gutberlet, J., Kain, J.H., Oloko, M., Pérez Reynosa, J., Zapata, P., Zapata Campos, M.J. (2018) Inclusive Waste governance and Grassroots Innovations for Social, Environmental and Economic Change, Göteborg: University of Gothenburg & Victoria University ISBN 978-91-984547-3-4

Maria José Zapata Campos, GU, Patrik Zapata, GU & Jaan-Henrik Kain, Chalmers & Michael Oloko JOOUST (Kenya) (2020), Environmental grassroots innovations: a circular economy from below, A Global Sustainable Futures Event: Research collaboration in low- and middle- income countries - findings, lessons and ways forward for implementing Agenda 2030, Global Sustainable Futures (GSF) - a joint collaboration platform at Chalmers University of Technology and University of Gothenburg 

Zapata Campos, MJ (2020) Organizing grassroots infrastructure for more inclusive and resilient cities: The (in)visible work of organizational ‘incompleteness’, Act Sustainable Research Conference, GMW, University of Gothenburg and Chalmers University of Technology. 

Zapata Campos, MJ, Zapata, P, Pérez, J, Oloko, M., Carenzo (2019), Recycling networks movement. A green deep democracy or the politics of garbage, European Group for Organisation Studies 35th Colloquium, EGOS, Edinburgh 4-7th July

Zapata, P. Pérez, J., Zapata Campos, M.J. Waste pickers resistance and the urban commons. Stories from the resilient community of La Chureca. European Sociology Association Conference, 20-23th August 2019 Manchester

Acevedo, A. Carenzo, S., Goodluck, C., Gutberlet, J., Kain, J.H., Oloko, M., Pérez Reynosa, J., Zapata, P., Zapata Campos, M.J., ‘Waste picker organisations and grassroots innovation movements’, Development Research Conference, Gothenburg, Sweden, 22-23th August 2018.

Carenzo, S., Goodluck, C., Gutberlet, J., Kain, J.H., Oloko, M., Pérez Reynosa, J., Zapata, P., Zapata Campos, M.J. Recycling networks. ‘Grassroots resilience tackling climate, environmental and poverty challenges’, Latin American European Organisation Studies Conference, Buenos Aires, 22-24th March 2018.

Carenzo, S. 2018. The B side of social innovation. Grassroots technologies development and waste picker cooperatives in Greater Buenos Aires (Argentina), 7th Social & Technology Studies Italia Conference, Padova (Italy), June 14-16th.

Carenzo, S. 2018. Del “reciclador permitido” a una “economía circular desde abajo”: escenarios y desafíos. Seminario “Promoviendo la incorporación de los Recicladores de Base (RB) como Gestores de Residuos”, organizado por laFundación “La Ciudad Posible”, Fundación “Tierra Viva” y el Movimiento Nacional de Recicladores de Base de Chile, Santiago de Chile, Jueves 2 de agosto 2018.

Gutberlet, J. & Carenzo, S. Waste pickers at the heart of the circular economy: a perspective from the Global South. SUM2018 Symposium on Urban Miningin Bergamo, Italy (21. – 24.05.2018)

Organized by the Recycling Networks and/or Waste Governance project:

Campamento de Innovación por el medioambiente, Managua, Nicaragua, July 26th 2021 
a film of the workshop here

Scholar seminar ‘Grassroots innovations from the popular economy for inclusive and resilient economies: design, crossing points and governance’, 15th January 2020, School of Business, Economics & Law, University of Gothenburg, Sweden

II International Recycling Networks & Waste Governance Conference, 29th April – 5th May 2019, in Dar es Salaam and Zanzibar in Tanzania

International Conference ‘Recycling Networks & Waste Governance’, Kisumu, Kenya 23th-28th April 2018

International Workshop “Innovación e Inclusión para una Economía Circular de los residuos”, Buenos Aires, October 12th 2018.

Workshop (Re)thinking Circular Economy “from below”, proposed and accepted to be included in the Academic Symposium Circular Economy Disruptions – Past, Present and Future, University of Exeter, UK - June 17 - 19th 2018. Coordinators: Sebastián Carenzo and Lucas Becerra - The Institute for Science and Technology Studies, National University of Quilmes (IESCT-UNQ), Argentina.

International Workshop “La linealidad del círculo: (re)pensando dinámicas tecno-cognitivas para el desarrollo inclusivo sustentable en la Economía Circular”, Buenos Aires, November 14th 2017.

Pérez-Reynosa, J. H. November 2019, Rio de Janeiro, “Recycling movements, resistance and the urban commons. Stories from the resilient community La Chureca”, paper presented in poster session at 22nd TWAS LACREP young scientist conference and 1st TYAN regional conference for Latin America and Caribbean region.

Pérez-Reynosa, J. H. October 2019, Managua, “Redes de reciclaje. La resiliencia de base abordando los desafíos del clima, el medio ambiente y la pobreza (Caso Managua, Nicaragua)”, research project presented at IV Congreso Nacional: La educación superior nicaraguense innovando y aprendiendo para el desarrollo sostenible.

Zapata Campos, M.J. 28 September 2018, Paris, "Infiltrating urban commoning practices in city policy-making, experiences from Managua and Göteborg”, paper presented at BISCOTE International Workshop" “Urban Commons and Territorial Development”

Carenzo, S. 8-11 January 2019, Bonn, Germany.
“Grassroot innovations and waste management: developing a holistic perspective from the global South”, speech presented at the German Development Institute (Deutsches Institut für Entwicklungspolitik -DIE).

Carenzo, S. 15 September 2017, Lyon, France.
“L’économie circulaire des déchets”, paper presented at the Atelier “Deuxième vie des objets”, Institut des Sciences de l'Homme

Carenzo, S. 8 février 2017. Paris, France
“Défis pour une ethnographie collaborative dans des secteurs populaires: vendedores ambulantes [vendeurs ambulants] et recuperadores de residuos [ramasseurs de déchets] à Buenos Aires”, paper co-authored with M.I. Fernandez Alvarez, presented at Atelier d'ethnographie de la maison Archéologie & Ethnologie, René-Ginouvès, Université Paris Nanterrre, mercredi 8 février 2017.

Gutberlet, J. I Simpósio Internacional do Programa de Pós-Graduação em Enfermagem, VIII Encontro da Rede/Roda de Pesquisa-ação Participativa, Maringá, 7.12.2018. A universidade e o seu compromisso com transformações socioambientais face às mudanças climáticas: Avanços e desafios

Gutberlet, J. Taller Innovación e Inclusión para uma Economía Circular de los Resíduos. La Matanza, Provincia de Buenos Aires, 12.10.2018. Modelos de gobernanza de los residuos e inclusión social en el Sur global.

Gutberlet, J. III Simpósio do Programa de Pós-Graduação em Estudos de Cultura e Território, I Seminário Internacional do Programa de Pós-Graduação dm Estudos de Cultura e Território, Araguaína, Tocantins, 11.09.2018. Pesquisa-ação e participação universitária nas transformações socioambientais: Teoría e prática da experiência do trabalho com catadores de materiais recicláveis

Gutberlet, J. Desafíos metodológicos del hacer con cartoneros y recuperadores desde espacios universitarios, públicos y comunitarios. Workshop: Experiencias de Investigación acción con cartoneros en Brasil y Canadá. University of Buenos Aires, 5 de Julio 2017

Kain, JH (2020) Transitioning from grassroots. Think global, act local. Transition Talks, Chalmers University of Technology.

Gutberlet, J. Grassroots social innovations changing narratives on waste: Research with waste pickers. LMU-University of München, Germany, 2.7.2018.

Gutberlet, J. Waste pickers challenging the current Circular Economy: A Global South perspective. LARG – UVic, 21.02.2018.

Gutberlet, J. Livelihoods and health status of waste pickers in Dhaka, Bangladesh. CAPI- Research Talks, UVic, 1.3.2018.

Gutberlet, J. Experiências de pesquisa-ação de resíduos sólidos em diferentes países e o potencial de participação universitária nas transformações socioambientais. Fundação Santo André, Brazil, 08.06.2017.


SUPERVISED THESIS (Bachelor, Master, PhD)
Victoria Rice and Johan Knape, School of Business, Economics & Law, master thesis in Innovation and Industrial Management Program, ‘Grassroots innovations in waste management, the case of ZanRec in Zanzibar’, December 2018 – May 2019. Supervised by Goodluck Charles and María José Zapata Campos

Dare Sholanke, Department of Geography, UVic. MA Thesis: Municipal solid waste governance in Vancouver and Montreal: specific focus on beverage container recycling. Supervised by Gutberlet, J. 2018

Maryellen Silva De Mesquita, Programa de Pós-Graduação em Políticas Públicas, Universidade Federal do Abc. MA Thesis: Política Nacional de Resíduos Sólidos, transições em regimes tecnológicos e a trajetória da Rede de Cooperativas de Catadores do Grande ABC (Coopcent ABC). Orientador: Adalberto Mantovani Martiniano de Azevedo; Committee member: Jutta Gutberlet, 15.12.2018.

Research team

• Jutta Gutberlet, Professor in Geography, University of Victoria, Canada, and Federal University of the ABC Region in São Paulo, Brazil
• Jaan-Henrik Kain, Professor in Urban Transformation. Chalmers University of Technology, Sweden.
• Michael O. Oloko, Senior lecturer in Environmental Engineering. Jaramogi Oginga Odinga University of Science and Technology Kisumu, Kenya.
• Goodluck Charles, Coordinator of Centre for Policy Research and Advocacy at the University of Dar es Salaam Business School, Tanzania.
• Jessica Pérez Reynosa, Associate professor in Business Administration, University of Central America, Nicaragua.
• Patrik Zapata, Professor in Public Administration, School of
Public Administration, University of Gothenburg, Sweden
• Sebastián Carenzo, researcher at CONICET; senior lecturer at the Institute for the Study of Science and Technology, National University of Quilmes, Argentina.
• María José Zapata, sociologist, Associate professor in Business
Administration, University of Gothenburg, Sweden, project leader.

Policy Briefs

Inclusive and sustainable waste governance (PDF)
This policy brief focuses on how local governments can develop more inclusive, democratic and sustainable waste gover- nance by partnering with, and strength- ening the role of, grassroots waste picker organizations and networks. Informed by action-research in Argentina, Brazil, Kenya, Nicaragua, and Tanzania, it shows how waste picker organisations are resilient forms of organizing which have contributed towards environmental education, advocated for more sustainable waste management solutions and developed grassroots innova- tions that contribute to a clean and healthy environment, as well as to more inclusive economiesand decent work.
Waste pickers' contributions to the transition towards a Circular Economy in the Global South (PDF)
This policy brief provides guidelines for building a transition towards Circu­lar Economy in the Global South that embraces not only economic and envi­ronmental aspects, but also social and equity concerns. It highlights the benefits of designing and implementing circular loops and cascades that go beyond the internat corporate production processes and engineering-based solutions, to encompass all the actors along the recycling value chain, including informal recyclers. Drawing on first hand field work data derived from two joint international action-research projects, we identify and provide policy recommendations related to:
■ Identifying market niches for inclusive business models focused on green jobs creation;
■ Developing low-tech processes to transform and process odd materials with recycling potential;
■ Implememing new waste governance models based on inclusive recycling at a local and regional scale.
The research evidence shows how waste pickers are widening the Circular Economy framework beyond the prevailing techno-economic core topics of the mainstream Circular Economy agenda.
Organized Waste pickers as environmental educators (PDF)
Waste pickers1 are organizing in member-based organizations and as such are increasingly being integrated in waste management systems. In some countries (such as Argentina, Brazil, Nicaragua) they have achieved förmal recognition as environmental service providers that conduct door-to-door collection of recy­clables, participate in educational activities at schools and contribute ro the clean-ups from littering, improving overall environmental health. Yet, most cities are far away from such an inclusive and sustainable waste management model and waste pickers still suffer from stigma and exclusion. Our research shows that cities can successfully work in collaboration with waste picker organizations, benefiting the community with education for better resource recovery (recycling) programs and improving the overall environmental condi­tions. It is central to recognize that waste pickers can become the environmen­tal ambassadors in their communities, advocating for zero waste, reuse and recycling, diminishing problems with littering, contamination and water logging. Their commitment ro recycling, waste collection and disposal sensi­tizes the community for best practices in waste management. Networking activities among waste pickers promote peer-to-peer learning that also helps them become better environmental educators. It ultimately takes an innovative local government to invite the accumulated knowledge from waste pickers into policy making to promote the desired shift rowards more sustainable and inclu­sive waste governance.