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Waste pickers risk losing their livelihood as Ulaanbaatar modernizes landfills, Mongolia

Ulaanbaatar's landfills are places of destroyed dreams. At the margins of the recent economic boom, hundreds of immigrated and homeless families survive from waste picking and now risk becoming pushed aside by infrastructure modernization projects.


Mongolia has recently experienced rapid economic growth, accelerated by a boost in mining activities, leading to strong internal migration and urbanization, a rise in consumerism, and a significant increase in waste volumes. As of 2015, Ulaanbaatar created about 2,700 tons of waste per day (the largest part of it organic waste and ash), which is about five times as much as at the beginning of the 2000s [1]. Over the past two decades, hundreds of thousands of people from rural areas have moved to Ulaanbaatar, almost doubling the city population, which is now close to 1.5 million [2]. That has increased pressure on public services, the welfare system, the labor market, affordable housing, and available land. Most of the newcomers settled in Ger, the traditional homes of nomadic herders, which, according to Mongolian law, can be placed freely at unoccupied land. Ger districts have thus mushroomed at the hills surrounding the city center but mostly remain without access to sanitation, electricity, central heating, and, sometimes, paved roads. Waste collection is infrequent and irregular dumping and spontaneous littering are commonplace, often contaminating ravines and open plots, while there is so far little consciousness about recycling and waste problems. [1][3][4][5]

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Basic Data
Name of conflict:Waste pickers risk losing their livelihood as Ulaanbaatar modernizes landfills, Mongolia
Location of conflict:Ulaanbaatar
Accuracy of locationHIGH (Local level)
Source of Conflict
Type of conflict. 1st level:Waste Management
Type of conflict. 2nd level:Urban development conflicts
Waste privatisation conflicts / waste-picker access to waste
Landfills, toxic waste treatment, uncontrolled dump sites
Water treatment and access to sanitation (access to sewage)
Specific commodities:Land
Domestic municipal waste
Recycled Metals
Project Details and Actors
Project details

As outlined above, there are currently two main projects to formalize/modernize the city’s waste management.

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Level of Investment for the conflictive project14,700,000.00
Type of populationUrban
Affected Population:5,000 - 7,000
Start of the conflict:2009
Relevant government actors:Government of Mongolia
Government of Ulaanbaatar
International and Finance InstitutionsEuropean Bank for Reconstruction & Development (EBRD) from United Kingdom
Japanese International Cooperation Agency (JICA) from Japan
Environmental justice organizations (and other supporters) and their websites, if available:NGO Red Stone & Holt Mongolia
NGO Development Circle
Amnesty International
Bankwatch Network
Tuvshin Caikhan Center
Conflict & Mobilization
IntensityLOW (some local organising)
Reaction stageLATENT (no visible resistance)
Groups mobilizing:Informal workers
International ejos
Local ejos
Wastepickers, recyclers
Local scientists/professionals
Forms of mobilization:Creation of alternative reports/knowledge
Development of alternative proposals
Involvement of national and international NGOs
Environmental ImpactsVisible: Air pollution, Fires, Loss of landscape/aesthetic degradation, Soil contamination, Waste overflow
Potential: Soil erosion, Surface water pollution / Decreasing water (physico-chemical, biological) quality, Groundwater pollution or depletion, Reduced ecological / hydrological connectivity
Health ImpactsVisible: Accidents, Mental problems including stress, depression and suicide, Health problems related to alcoholism, prostitution, Occupational disease and accidents, Infectious diseases, Other environmental related diseases
Potential: Malnutrition, Violence related health impacts (homicides, rape, etc..)
Socio-economical ImpactsVisible: Displacement, Lack of work security, labour absenteeism, firings, unemployment, Loss of livelihood, Social problems (alcoholism, prostitution, etc..), Specific impacts on women, Violations of human rights
Potential: Increase in violence and crime, Loss of traditional knowledge/practices/cultures, Land dispossession
Project StatusIn operation
Conflict outcome / response:Environmental improvements, rehabilitation/restoration of area
Technical solutions to improve resource supply/quality/distribution
Proposal and development of alternatives:As Uddin and Gutberlet (2018) find, waste pickers show a strong willingness to further support the waste management system and should thus become better included in the formal recycling sector. This could happen through the support of recycling cooperatives, capacity-building, the provision of micro-credits to grassroots recycling businesses, the provision of recycling facilities to waste picker groups, and guaranteed access to recyclable waste for them and those who might remain in the informal sector, to acknowledge the role of waste picking as a social safety net. At the same time, more comprehensive social policies that address the vulnerabilities of marginalized groups are necessary, for example in the creation of jobs and affordable housing.
Do you consider this an environmental justice success? Was environmental justice served?:Not Sure
Briefly explain:The consequences of the current modernization projects on individual livelihoods in Ulaanbaatar are hard to assess, as currently not all future impacts on the waste picker community are clear and a number of promises are being made to legitimize the projects.

The policies however indicate that waste management is being more and more reconfigured towards technical solutions, which will probably bring health and environmental benefits, while the livelihoods of people in the informal sector are further put at risk. It is somewhat disenchanting that those who were the very first to start recycling activities – out of need and filling the gaps of the formal sector – remain marginalized and, in the best case, “compensated”, while waste is now slowly discovered as profitable. As mentioned, the process of formalization could also increase gender disparities, as informal and community-oriented forms of recycling, which are predominantly sustained by women, are clearly not priorities of the current waste management plans.

Even though the living realities of many waste pickers have been more than precarious – with important drivers being unemployment, lack of documentation, alcohol dependency, and lack of state support – it is clear that waste picking has so far served as a survival strategy for underprivileged communities. Depending on the final outcome of the ongoing formalization process, waste picking could no longer provide this role to the same extent, if recyclable waste becomes exclusively handled by the formal, private sector.
Sources & Materials
References to published books, academic articles, movies or published documentaries

[1] UNEP-IETC, GRID-Arendal (2019): Gender and waste nexus: experiences from Bhutan, Mongolia and Nepal.

[2] EBRD (2018): Mongolia: Ulaanbaatar Solid Waste Modernisation Project - Environmental and Social Assessment.

[6] Sarankhuu, A., Nyamjav, E. (2017): Ulaanbaatar Waste Management Improvement Strategy and Action Plant, 2017 – 2032.

[8] Uddin, S., Gutberlet, J. (2018): Livelihoods and health status of informal recyclers in Mongolia. In: Resources, Conservation & Recycling 134, 1-9.

[9] Wall, L. (2020): UB Solid Waste Modernisation: Livelihood Restoration Plan. Shared Resources Pty Ltd. (Online, last accessed: 15.04.2020)

[14] JICA (2007): The Study on Solid Waste Management Plant for Ulaanbaatar City in Mongolia. Summary. Final Report, March 2007. Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA).

[15] Byamba, B., Ishikawa, M. (2017): Municipal Solid Waste Management in Ulaanbaatar Mongolia: Systems Analysis. In: Sustainability, 9, 2017, 896.

[3] Amnesty International (2016): Mongolia: Thousands at risk of homelessness due to authorities’ urban redevelopment failings. 07.12.2016. (Online, last accessed: 15.04.2020)
[click to view]

[4] Hernández, J. (2017): ‘We Don’t Exist’: Life Inside Mongolia’s Swelling Slums. The New York Times, 02.10.2017. (Online, last accessed: 15.04.2020)
[click to view]

[5] Hoffman, D. (2019): Living on the edge: waste collection at Mongolia’s landfill rehabilitation project. Bankwatch, 16.10.2019. (Online, last accessed: 15.04.2020)
[click to view]

[7] Wikileaks (2007): Wasting Waste: Mongolia Slowly Learns to Love Recycling. WIKILEAKS Public Library of US Diplomacy (PlusD), 22.10.2007. (Online, last accessed: 15.04.2020)
[click to view]

[10] (2019): Улаанчулуутын хогийн цэгээс өдөрт 100-200 хүн амьдралаа залгуулдаг.11.06.2019. (Online, last accessed: 15.04.2020)
[click to view]

[11] Шүрэнцэцэг, O. (2020): Амь зуух тэмцэл буюу хогоор хооллогсод., 13.01.2020. (Online, last accessed: 15.04.2020)
[click to view]

[12] Herriot, M. (2017): The Dreamers. Holt International Magazine, 30.11.2017. (Online, last accessed: 15.04.2020)
[click to view]

[13] Polis (2009): Under Ulaanbaatar: Homelessness in Mongolia’s Capital City. The Polis Blog, 13.11.2009. (Online, last accessed: 15.04.2020)
[click to view]

[16] EBRD (2017): GrCF Ulaanbaatar Solid Waste Modernisation Project. European Bank for Reconstruction and Development. (Online, last accessed: 15.04.2020)
[click to view]

Related media links to videos, campaigns, social network

MNCTV Mongolia (2016): Улаан чулуутын хогийн цэг - Зураглал (Video Youtube)
[click to view]

Meta information
Contributor:EnvJustice Project (MS)
Last update11/05/2020
Conflict ID:5015
Legal notice / Aviso legal
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