Background information on waste management in Tehran
In 2016, the Tehran Waste Management Organization estimated that the annual waste production rates are approximately 7.2 million tons. 70 to 75 percent of this waste is said to be organic material which can be converted into compost, 20 to 25 percent are recyclable dry materials and the remaining 5 to 10 percent consist of other wastes .
According to Hossein Jafari, head of the Tehran Waste Management Organization, part of the waste is incinerated for fuel production, another part is used for compost production, some of it is brought to the Kahrizak landfill  and the part containing valuable recycled materials such as plastic and aluminium is exported to countries like China and Pakistan by Iranian companies . Jafari also explains that the Tehran Waste Management Organization is unable to collect all of the dry recyclable waste by itself, which is why a significant fraction of other dry recyclable waste is directly collected from trash bins by wastepickers who work in unhealthy environments .
Plastic and the rise of the “Dirt Gold Mafia”
There is no reliable information on the exact amount of wastepickers operating in Tehran’s informal recycling sector. Iran’s adoption of polyethylene terephthalate (PET) in local soft drink manufacturing is said to have triggered the rise of an underground operation sometimes referred to as the “dirt gold mafia” . Recycled PET is especially valuable given that it can be converted into fibres used for computer packaging. Shortly after the introduction of PET, approximately 200 privately-owned recycling plants were engaged in the collection and export of PET and between 2008 and 2014 approximately 3 quarters of these plants were shut down. This is predicted to be the result of “dirt gold mafia” who employs cheap labour to collect waste before legal collectors do so, while simultaneously controlling the prices of the materials they sell to recycling plants . More specifically, wastepickers sell their collected items to the first illegal collector who only purchases waste in the 10 kg range. These first illegal collectors then sell to mid-level dealers who usually purchase in the 100 kg range. Finally, the top-level dealer sells metric tons of waste to legal recycling plants that prepare the material for export . As mentioned before, the top of this “dirt gold mafia” employs low-paid workers which are more than often the most socially and economically deprived people in Tehran, they are usually illiterate and live at the margins of the city .
According to an Afghan waste picker Latif who was interviewed by Azad News Agency, his cousin who has lived in Iran for several years is earning “good money” as a waste picker. “Last year he encouraged me to come to Iran to work in this lucrative business. I was introduced to his ‘boss’ who offered me a monthly wage of $385 (15 million rials) and shared accommodation. Based upon the hours put in, we are paid even more”.
The employment of children as wastepickers in Tehran
More worrisome, is the fact that the “dirt gold mafia” are increasingly employing children to their bidding. In 2017, Mozafar Alvandi, secretary of the National Body on the Convention of the Rights of the Child revealed that children wastepickers in Tehran have special cards issued by the Tehran Muncipality which legally allow them to search trash bins. These cards actually have to be purchased, and cost the children wastepickers approximately 78.5 dollars per month. Furthermore, approximately 60% of these children wastepickers are refugees . According to the Iranian scholar Mariam Abazeri, one of the main reasons that Afghan children tend to be wastepickers, is because they are not legally allowed to be in school in Tehran . This clearly shows that city officials are not only aware of the problem but actually enforce a continuation of these activities instead of preventing children from entering such precarious working conditions in the first place.
This is further confirmed by Elham Eftekhari, a member of Tehran’s City Council on the state-run ILNA news agency in May 2018: “Obvious grounds in the municipality facilitate the exploitation of children in difficult jobs, especially the collection of waste.” 
According to FreedomStar, a blog run by the political activist Masoud Dalvand, the average age of children wastepickers is 12 years. They work up to 10.5 hours a day and suffer a variety of severe diseases such as AIDS, hepatitis, skin lesions, polio and spine problems since they usually carry between 70 to 80 kilograms of garbage per day. These wastepicker children often live and work in garbage collection garages run by contractors who either directly hire children or put an adult wastepicker in charge of the garage. The owner of these garages receive approximately 120 dollars per month for each child they employ and according to survey conducted by Susan Maziarfar, member of the Imam Ali society, 40 percent of the 600 children interviewed are illiterate, 52 percent live in garbage dumps while 48 percent lives in very precarious homes. Only 62 percent of the children wear gloves while separating garbage. Apart from these appalling conditions, these children often face brutality by municipal agents. One interviewed boy from Tehran said his ear was cut off with a razor because he was looking for recyclables in the trash. The 70 to 80 kilograms of trash collected each day is also transported by hand since municipal agents often confiscate carts .
Early 2019, 17 hectares of Khavaran, south of Tehran were dismantled and liberated. These spaces hosted illegal waste separation activities and each of the units had been sent warnings, while 11 cases are currently being issued and executed. According to Hassan Babaei, approximately 3000 foreigners are active in the many illegal recycling centres in Kharavan which operate in ways that release smoke with toxic compounds .
Later in 2019, the Iranian militia was also mobilized, with the execution of a court order, to destroy an unauthorized waste collection unit in Tehran’s District 20 . The owner of the property is now being prosecuted and it may well be that this is one of the garbage garages employing children as wastepickers.
Ways forward in times of economic hardship
In 2019, as the result of a sharp increase in Iran’s inflation rate, from 9.6 percent in 2017 to 23.8 percent in 2019, Amanollah Gharaei Moghadam, an Iranian sociologist expressed that apart from addicts and children, economically marginalized Iranians and Afghan refugees are collecting waste from the streets. In fact, the majority of wastepickers in Tehran are Afghan refugees under 18 years old and residents of poor ghettos surrounding the city .
Hossein Jafari, head of the Tehran Waste Management Organization argues that if all of Tehran’s residents would implement the same scheme for waste segregation, the number of wastepickers would decline. So far, the scheme has proved unsuccessful since most of the Tehran’s residents have not complied with the separation of dry and organic waste . This same view is expressed by activist and sociologist M. Zohoorian but in a more bottom-up setting: “For the separation of garbage, first of all, it must be built up. It should also be remembered that according to the living conditions of the people of the community that reside mostly in small residential units, one can not expect to use only two bins for the separation of waste. If waste separation is done at source, then the waste bins will be empty and we will no longer see garbage collection” .
During the ceremony on the eve of the World Day Against Children's Work in Tehran, Kamil Ahmadi stated that: “Providing citizenship education infrastructure will be another effective way to solve this issue. For example, citizens do not separate their garbage. Part of this problem will be resolved if citizens are held accountable for the separation of waste at home. We make a massive amount of waste without asking ourselves how many of us refuse to get a plastic bag when shopping from a shop? Because our city life has become very lazy”. When it comes to the fact that many wastepickers are illegal Afghan immigrants, Ahmadi mentions that the best solution is to send children under the age of 15 back to Afghanistan and keep children over the age of 15 in Iran. With the help of government agencies they would then be able to receive an education .