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


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]

Mongolia still lacks effective monitoring and implementation of legal frameworks in the waste management sector, so that waste is mostly dumped unsorted at landfills. Recycling is not widely established and was mostly pushed forward by the Japanese development cooperation and Chinese-owned businesses who started to buy recyclables from the informal sector [1][6][7]. In Ulaanbaatar, waste ends up in three authorized landfills (Narangiin Enger, Tsagaan Davaa, Moringiin Davaa), four recorded illegal dumpsites, and a larger number of small informal dumping grounds, especially in the outskirts of the city. There is no formal collection system or large-scale waste processing facility so that recycling is almost exclusively done by the informal sector. Across the city, thousands of waste pickers make a living from collecting bottles, cans, paper, and other waste of value, which is directly exchanged for cash at junkyards and informal collection points that have popped up near the landfills. Materials are then typically sold on to scrap dealers, although there is also a growing number of social entrepreneurs working with upcycling. Until recently, the bulk of recycled materials used to be shipped to China, but import restrictions in 2018 led to a significant drop in prices for most recyclables (up to half), as there is no big domestic recycling industry in Mongolia. [1]

The World Bank in 2004 estimated between 5,000 and 7,000 waste pickers and informal recyclers in Ulaanbaatar. While there are no exact new figures, the number is likely to have further increased in the following, given the increase in urban population and waste volumes, but could have also decreased recently due to the drop in prices and an ongoing process of enclosure of waste (see below). [8] For example, around 200 people were reported to pick waste at Tsagaan Davaa, a landfill located in the city’s northeast that receives about 1,200 tons of waste per day. They typically earn between MNT 10,000 and 30,000 per day (3.50 – 10 $US), which is more than for example street sweepers. [1][2] The smaller Moringiin Davaa landfill in the southwest of the city receives about 400 tons of waste per day and in 2019 counted about 100 waste pickers – including children and elderly, some of them living at the site – who have often been working as waste pickers for ten or more years [2][5][9].

The city’s largest landfill, Narangiin Enger in the northwest of the city receives about 1,700 tons of waste per day and was opened in 2009 next to the older Ulaanchuluut dumpsite. While the area used to be frequented by up to 1,000 waste pickers when access to the site was unregulated, the numbers have now reportedly dropped to about 200 people in 2019 [2][10]. Many of them still live in the Ulaanchuluut dump area, sometimes in houses constructed of recycled mattresses. Trucks arrive at all times of the day, even at night, and dump all sorts of waste, including recyclables and everything the community needs to survive (food, clothes, wood to make fire, …). They regularly suffer from infections and noxious smoke and are socially stigmatized as alcoholics [4][11][12]. Waste pickers here are mostly women who have migrated from rural areas some years ago and now live at the dump under poor conditions; some of them have given up hopes and state: “Nobody cares about us. We don’t exist. We have no other option. - I just hope I can survive” [4]. In 2015, the “Red Stone School” was opened in Ulaanchuluut to support children of waste pickers, who often cannot register at public schools due to lacking documents. It was founded by Baasandorj Alagaa, who grew up as an orphan at the dump but later managed to study and become a social worker [12].

A case study by Uddin and Gutberlet (2018) finds that informal recycling in Ulaanbaatar serves as a survival strategy and social safety net for the most marginalized and vulnerable groups – typically rural migrants, single mothers, elderly, homeless, unemployed and alcohol-addicted people. They face a number of exclusions and social problems, which often go one with another [8]. Especially homelessness is a rampant problem since the economic recession in the 1990s. A total of 14,000 people in Ulaanbaatar (including between 1,000 and 4,000 children) are estimated to be homeless. During winter, when temperatures reach minus 30° or less, they typically seek shelter in abandoned structures, hospital stairs, or in underground sewers with hot water pipes. Half of the interviewed waste pickers were found to be homeless and almost all had alcohol addition, as the combination of social marginalization, a lack of opportunities, and cold temperatures drives alcoholism, which again makes it difficult to develop better perspectives [8][13]. Another big problem for waste pickers is lacking documentation. Especially recently arrived people often do not have ID cards and are unable to access formal employment and governmental services (including school and hospitals), and obtaining them is a long bureaucratic process [8].

As the mentioned study further outlines, the majority of interviewed waste pickers were socially and economically excluded. Half of them had recently arrived from rural areas, often after becoming confronted with disasters, family conflicts, unemployment, and usually with the hope to find work and better perspectives. Almost all said that they would pick waste because they had no other means of income and did not receive help from the government. However, not all waste pickers are poor and about 15 percent of the interviewees had even received higher education at a university but then encountered social problems. Some could not find another job because of old age, criminal records, health issues, or disability, and others said that they needed to earn extra money or did not want to have a fixed job. Younger waste pickers also reported that they could not go to school because they needed to earn money to survive. Two-thirds of them had suffered from health diseases related to waste picking (skin, stomach or kidney diseases, back pain, cuts, burns, broken bones, etc.). While there is no collective organizing of waste pickers, most of them work in teams of four or five people, often with family members, and usually always collect in the same area and along the same routes, in order to reduce conflict and problems. They increasingly face competition from formal waste workers who pick out the more valuable recyclables during their shifts to supplement their salaries [8].

Another study by the GRID-Arendal foundation highlighted the gendered nature of waste management in Ulaanbaatar (not different from many other places) and noted that the responsibility for recycling remains confined to the voluntary, informal and domestic level, where it is above all carried by people identified as women. Women would not only amount for the majority of waste pickers and deal with waste at the household level, but also engage with recycling issues at the community level, for example in participating in voluntary clean-ups and public meetings. They also run smaller recycling businesses and upcycling initiatives committed to environmentalism, filling the gaps of the formal sector and re-framing waste as a resource. On the other hand, formal positions, and particularly decision-making and manual labor, were mostly occupied by men, who tended to remain alienated from household and community issues around waste. As the report further notes, such patterns could reproduce in the process of formalization of the recycling sector, for example in the question of who will get jobs once they are made scarce. The recent experience of street sweepers shows that women were driven out of the jobs once they became formalized and better paid (as men were, contrary to the facts, regarded as more efficient). It was also observed that more men started waste picking once it was recognized as profitable (for example at Tsagaan Davaa landfill, where now “only” 60 percent are women) and were behaving more competitively in claiming recyclables for them [1].

The city of Ulaanbaatar has undertaken several steps to modernize and formalize its waste management sector. The first attempts were made in the early 2000s with the help of the Japanese Development Agency (JICA) when the Mongolian government launched awareness campaigns, small initiatives to encourage recycling and private recycling points. The Ulaanchuluut dumpsite became sanitized and the Narangiin Enger landfill was constructed as the city’s first sanitary landfill. Access for waste pickers became restricted (first prohibited, but then partly allowed). They were offered training and promised participation in a new recycling plant, but the project was never realized for unknown reasons [7][9][14].

Currently, the city government and the Mongolian National Waste Recycling Association, which links several recycling businesses, are working on an “eco-park” project. In the course of the project, the Narangiin Enger – Ulaanchuluut area will become converted into a cluster of several recycling facilities. Private businesses that settle there are promised tax exemptions. Also, Tsagaan Davaa landfill would be modernized and receive a recycling plant [1][6][15]. However, it is not clear what will happen to informal waste pickers, and whether they will be offered jobs in the formal waste management sector [1]. In 2019, government representatives visited the Ulaanchuluut dumpsite and said they will no longer permit child work and break with people’s “bad habits”. They urged waste pickers to register for documents and formalize their status and promised them assistance in finding a job [10].

Another project that is being advanced is the expansion of Moringiin Davaa landfill and the building of a processing plant for construction and demolition waste. The “Ulaanbaatar Solid Waste Modernisation Project” comes as part of the “Green Cities” program of the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD), which aims to improve infrastructure in the so-called developing countries without jeopardizing sustainability. According to the plans, the new site will receive the city’s entire construction and demolition waste and hazardous waste will be better managed. Access for waste pickers will be prohibited – or in official words: “an EU compliant waste facility will require all waste picking activities to cease” [9]. However, one of the loan conditions of EBRD is that affected people must receive compensation and resettlement, for which a “Livelihood Restoration Plan” is being produced [5][9][16]. At a 2019 visit of a media team and the NGO Development Circle, which supports waste pickers at the city’s various landfills, the modernization plans were encountered with skepticism. Waste pickers voiced the concern that only a few of them will get a job under the new scheme and that especially the elderly will be left out and remain without perspective. Others stated that they were hoping to receive training and compensation. It remains unclear in what way the impacts of this enclosure – above all, loss of income and displacement – will be eventually compensated, and for how many, as only a small number of people were identified as affected [5][9].

Another controversy arises from the city’s current “redevelopment” strategy, which aims to improve infrastructure and formalize the housing situation in several ger districts. The government announced to increase the percentage of formal housing from currently 40 to 70 percent by 2030. As a 2016 Amnesty International report highlighted, the plans fell short in terms of transparency and consultation and put interests of real estate developers over those of residents. It was criticized that many families were put at risk of eviction and homelessness, as their homes were considered inappropriate and might soon have to make way for construction [3][4].

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:Landfills, toxic waste treatment, uncontrolled dump sites
Urban development conflicts
Waste privatisation conflicts / waste-picker access to waste
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.

1) Ecopark project, following the mayor’s resolution No. A/695: The city of Ulaanbaatar plans to establish an eco-park at the Narangiin Enger, converting the current landfill area into a recycling complex where several facilities and business will be clustered. Moreover, Tsagaan Davaa landfill will be modernized and a recycling plant installed, so the plans. The investment remains unclear.

2) Ulaanbaatar Solid Waste Modernisation Project: The city’s third landfill, Moringiin Davaa, will be modernized and equipped with a processing plant for construction and demolition waste. The capacities will be expanded and waste pickers prohibited access to the site. The project costs are $US 14,700,000, of which 9,700,000 are financed by a loan of the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD), which has included the project in its Green Cities program.

Beyond that, Ulaanbaatar plans to converts some of its Ger district into formal housing areas, as part of an infrastructure and redevelopment strategy. Currently, only 40 percent of the capital’s population lives in apartments, while about 900,000 people live in the ger districts surrounding the city center.

Level of Investment:14,700,000.00
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

[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.

[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.

[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)

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

[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)

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

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

[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)

[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)

[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)

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

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

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

Related media links to videos, campaigns, social network

MNCTV Mongolia (2016): Улаан чулуутын хогийн цэг - Зураглал (Video Youtube)

Meta information

Contributor:EnvJustice Project (MS)
Last update11/05/2020



Ulaanchuluut landfill in winter 2020


Waste pickers also work at night

(Photo credit: Paula Bronstein, Getty)

Waste is collected from arriving garbage trucks

(Photo credit: Paula Bronstein, Getty)

Hundreds of families live from waste picking in Ulaanchuluut

(Photo credit: Daniel Hespen)

Waste volumes have quintupled over the past 15 years

(Photo credit: Paula Bronstein, Getty)