The Efficiency of Informality: Quantifying Greenhouse Gas Reductions from Informal Recycling in Bogotá, Colombia



The dual challenges of increasing urbanization and consumption are centered in cities in the Global South, where growing waste production threatens public and environmental health. Reuse and recycling are widely recognized to provide broad environmental benefits. Although most industrialized cities replaced their informal recycling sectors with municipally run recycling schemes and have had to build their recycling rates anew, most industrializing cities in the Global South remain centers of recycling and reuse through the work of informal workers. Bogotá, Colombia, is emblematic of many cities in the Global South seeking to modernize their city, in part by formalizing their recycling system. This article asks: What are the greenhouse gas (GHG) emission implications of this modernization? Using interviews and observation in combination with life cycle assessment, we compare GHG emissions resulting from the baseline case (1,200 tonnes per day [t/d] recycled through informal channels; 5,700 t/d landfilled) to three alternative scenarios that formalize the recycling sector: the prohibition of informal recycling; a reduction in informal recycling coupled with a scale-up of formalized recycling; and the replacement of informal recycling with formal recycling. We find that the baseline recycling scenario, dependent on the informal sector only, emits far fewer GHGs than do all formalization scenarios. Three processes drive the results, in order of magnitude: informal textile reuse (largest GHG savings); landfilling (largest emitter of GHGs); and metal recycling (GHG savings). A hybrid model could combine the incentives and efficiency of the informal system with the better working conditions of the municipal one.