The waste-pickers who scour the world's rubbish dumps and daily recycle thousands of tonnes of metal, paper and plastics are up in arms against the U.N., which they claim is forcing them out of work and increasing climate change emissions.

Their complaint, heard on Wednesday in Bonn where the U.N. global climate change talks have resumed. The pickers say the clean development mechanism (CDM), an ambitious climate finance scheme designed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in developing countries, has led to dozens of giant waste-to-energy incinerators being built to burn municipal rubbish, as well as hundreds of new landfill schemes designed to collect methane gas.

“Waste-pickers, who are some of the poorest people on earth, recover recyclable materials. They are invisible entrepreneurs on the frontline of climate change, earning a living from recovery and recycling, reducing demand for natural resources,” says Neil Tangri, director of Gaia, an alliance of 500 anti-incinerator groups in 80 countries.

“But they are being undermined by CDM projects, which deny them entry to dumps. This is leading to further stress and hardship for some of the poorest people in the world and is increasing emissions,” he said.

Waste-pickers handle much of the growing mountains of rubbish in developing countries. Nearly 60 per cent of all Delhi's waste, for example, is recycled by an army of tens of thousands of pickers who scavenge for recyclable materials on the city's dumps.

“These workers are providing a public service — for free. Building incinerators robs the poorest of the poor,” said Bharati Chaturvedi, director of Indian NGO Chintan which works with waste-pickers and has been opposing a giant incinerator being built in Delhi with CDM money.

On Wednesday, Gaia called for the CDM to stop approving incinerator waste to energy projects and to start investing climate funds in the informal recycling sector. This, it said, would increase employment and labour conditions while dramatically reducing emissions.

Gaia also argues that the U.N.'s methodology for assessing whether projects should be granted CDM credits does not take into account the emissions saved by recycling.

Recycling and composting, it says, are nearly 25 times more effective at reducing greenhouse gas emissions than waste-to-energy incinerators.

“CDM funding for incineration and landfills represents a lost opportunity to reduce pollution and help improve the welfare of some of the poorest people on earth. This funding incentivises the destruction of valuable resources that would otherwise have been recovered with significant climate benefits.” But a spokeswoman for the CDM said on Thursday that waste-to-energy incinerators saved emissions and provided new employment. “These projects would not have taken place without the CDM”.

But she said the CDM would welcome groups of waste-pickers who wanted to apply for U.N. climate credits. “If they can show, with the correct methodology, that they are saving emissions, they would be eligible, too,” she said.

The CDM, set up in 2001, allows rich countries to offset their emissions by investing in projects that reduce emissions in poor countries. In nearly 10 years' operation it claims to have reduced emissions significantly worldwide but has been accused of allowing fraud by unscrupulous industrialists who have found ways to register projects that would have been built anyway.

Incinerator plants are some of the largest sources of urban protests in both rich and poor countries, with people living near them, or downwind of them, concerned over cancers and other illnesses. These concerns are strongly denied by incinerator and city authorities who have invested billions of dollars in new plants. — © Guardian Newspapers Limited, 2010

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