Unintended Consequences of the Oil Price Drop

ReFab Dar has been interviewing waste pickers to get them involved in our work and to collaborate together to improve their standards of living. At the beginning of the project, it appeared that this would not be a difficult task with reasonable oil prices the waste pickers were many and were predictable in their routine for earning money. By directly interviewing twenty one waste pickers at a once busy collection point, we discovered that all that has changed.

The international price of oil has been plummeting over the course of the last few weeks. The price of oil is not expected to increase as the production glut will last well into 2016 according to some sources. For some, this is welcomed as they see lower prices at the gas pumps and it reduces the cost of transportation for goods. For others such as the waste pickers of Dar es Salaam, the swift price drop has significantly negatively impacted their business. Before the prices began to fall the normal price of a kilogram of plastic bottles was 300 Tanzanian Shillings (Tzs). The current price of less than $50 a barrel has reduced the plastic bottle buying price to a mere 100 Tzs.

According to our research, the waste pickers who collect plastic bottles from the side of the road in Dar collect anywhere from 30 to 100 kilograms per day. At a price of 300 Tzs even the collectors who accumulated 30 kilograms of plastic bottles would receive 9,000 Tzs ($4.50) which is enough for their daily needs of food and water. Now 100 kilograms need to be collected to be able to have the same standard of living. A sizable number of recycling drop off points have been closed due to the lack of profitability. Many people who used to work in the role of waste collection have given up the work in hopes to find other opportunities with less price volatility.

The occupation of a waste collector is already rife with challenges aside from these pricing woes. Waste pickers state that there is enormous stigma in their profession. People believe they are thieves and criminals and they are treated with contempt and in some cases physical abuse. The work is physically exhausting as well as being smelly, unhygienic, and generally unpleasant yet it is the way of life for hundreds if not thousands in Dar. Individuals already in a precarious state are thus pushed further into poverty by global markets that they scarcely understand.

The ReFab Dar project seeks to make a sustainable change in the lives of the waste collectors. It is an experiment to see if it is possible to pay at a consistent rate for the input plastic for the filament thus ensuring a fair income to the waste pickers. The plastic filament created would have a stable market price, thus the waste pickers collecting the plastic can be paid a premium for their service without the fear of international oil prices.

The idea of working with the waste pickers to sell 3D printed products from the plastic bottles was wildly popular among the waste pickers interviewed. They would be happy to be able to diversify their income stream especially through products that come from the plastic bottles they have been collecting. As the waste pickers are aware that most of the current processed bottles are sent for export, local valued added processing would mark a welcomed change to the current recycling ecosystem.