- In India, many national policies have recognised the role of the informal sector, mainly waste pickers, and have expressed value in their inclusion in the waste ecosystem. Yet, there are many challenges in integrating them into the existing waste infrastructure.
- Integrating the formal and informal sectors in India will be key to optimising resource recovery and recycling in the future and finding solutions to plug the ‘leak’ of plastics into our oceans.
- Grassroots organisations that work at the intersection between the formal and informal sectors are important, and policy level changes are needed to adopt a decentralised, cost-efficient blueprint for waste management.
Most of us forget about our waste once it is discarded into dustbins or municipal garbage trucks. Municipalities and waste management companies are only at the tip of an iceberg – the formal waste sector – funded, regulated and managed by local governments. This sector is involved with all kinds of waste: organic, inorganic, domestic, hazardous, horticultural refuse, and construction debris, among others. They are responsible for the collection, transport, recycling, and the appropriate disposal of waste which they often execute directly or via an external vendor.
Ideally, the segregation of waste into recyclables and non-recyclables should be done at source by the households, residential areas, or business centres that generate waste. Paper, metal, and glass have long been salvaged as they have good potential for recycling. Plastic is the new material that needs immediate attention. While polyethylene terephthalate or PET has a fair recycling value with the plastic-to-textile industry creating high demand, other commonly used plastics have little to no value and are often discarded. Hence, this plastic often reaches landfills, where it is incinerated or buried. Many chemical additives from these plastics leach into the soil and the surrounding ecosystems, often finding their way into rivers and marine ecosystems.
In much of the developing world, as in India, recovering recyclable waste between source and landfill is expensive, tedious and labour-intensive. This gap in the waste ecosystem is filled by the informal sector. This informal sector is a near-invisible, shadowy waste economy that we rarely acknowledge or appreciate, because it falls outside the purview of the formal system.
The informal sector, often concerned with inorganic waste, has many players. Waste pickers collect and segregate recyclable waste from residential areas, and are incentivised by the chance to earn a livelihood from it. They then sell the waste to small scrap dealers or kabadiwallas. The scrap dealers further segregate the waste and sell it to a (Level 2) small or medium aggregator. From here, it is carted off to a wholesaler or stockist, and finally, to specific recycling units.
In India, many national policies have recognised the role of the informal sector, mainly waste pickers, and have expressed value in their inclusion in the waste ecosystem. Yet waste pickers face other challenges while operating within the formal waste economy: outsourcing of waste management to private companies, waste-to-energy plants touted as alternatives to recycling, and urban zoning plans that do not factor in the infrastructure requirements of waste management. Importantly, waste pickers at the frontline of the informal sector work in challenging, often unsanitary conditions that affect their health. They also face uncertainty due to fluctuating market prices of recyclables.
Over the decade, grassroots organisations around the country have been working with waste pickers, in a bid to integrate them into the waste economy. Among these are Kabadiwalla Connect (Chennai), Hasiru Dala (Bengaluru), and Chintan (Delhi) that have emerged as waste management solutions and there are a few lessons that can be learnt from them.
Informal sector crucial in finding solutions to plug plastic leak
“Every year, Chennai generates over 1,30,000 tonnes of waste, of which plastic accounts for 10-15,000 tonnes. It is a huge challenge for the municipality to implement waste segregation at source. Hence, most of the waste, including 10-15% of which can be recycled, ends up in landfills. City authorities spend $200,000 (approximately Rs. 15 million) every day to collect the waste and transport it to the Pallikaranai and Kodungaiyur landfills,” states Siddharth Hande, CEO of Kabadiwalla Connect, a Chennai-based initiative for decentralised waste management.
“If cities across India are keen on optimising their resource recovery and recycling in the future and finding solutions to plug the ‘leak’ of plastics into our oceans, integrating the formal and informal waste sectors will be crucial,” adds Hande.
Hande also shares that the informal waste system helps Chennai collect roughly 20% of its recyclable waste, over 100,000 tonnes annually. By linking networks of waste pickers and scrap shop owners, he says he believes that almost 70% of the waste being sent to landfills could be diverted.
Kabadiwalla Connect helps leverage the city’s existing informal waste infrastructure in the collection, segregation and processing of post-consumer waste, with the help of innovative, technology-based solutions. Its inclusive, cost-efficient, and industry-compliant solutions harness the untapped resource of the informal sector in the supply chain, reduce the health risks faced by waste pickers, and pay rich dividends while tackling plastic waste at urban, and semi-urban levels.
“In the informal sector, we rarely talk of the stakeholders beyond waste pickers. Yet there is a nexus of scrap dealers or kabadiwallas, aggregators, wholesalers and recyclers, that are an essential part of the waste ecosystem. This lack of classification is key to the problem of integrating the formal and informal sectors,” explains Hande. The involvement of upstream stakeholders of the value chain, such as plastic manufacturers and retailers is needed to bring about an integration of the waste ecosystem.
Bridging gap between waste workers and other stakeholders vital
In Bengaluru, the informal waste ecosystem is much the same – the door-to-door collection of waste is done by the municipality, or waste pickers, and is deposited at dry waste collection centres, where it is sorted for recycling. Paper, metal, glass, cloth, and plastics are usually recovered, with plastics like tetra packs, which are technically recyclable but have a poor market value, sent off to waste-to-energy plants or as fuel for cement kilns.
Since 2011, Hasiru Dala has been working to bridge the gap between waste workers and other stakeholders, such as the local governments, policymakers, and citizens, while improving the lives and livelihoods of waste pickers. Bengaluru with over 35,000 waste pickers and itinerant buyers, has approximately 3,500 tonnes of plastic traded in the informal economy every single day – rescuing it from landfills, incineration sites and water networks. In 2021, Hasiru Dala actively worked with over 40 wards in the city, and their dry waste collection centres handled a total of 13,656 metric tonnes (T) of waste, of which 4,097 T was recyclable, and 9,559 T was non-recyclable waste.
“Often plastics that can be recycled, such as food containers, aren’t washed properly, and hence, have to be discarded. Working with residents and encouraging them to put in the effort to clean food-related waste, often discarded improperly due to convenience, is essential,” says Rohini Malur, Communications Manager at Hasiru Dala. “Putting the onus of cleaning and segregation on households reaps benefits further up the waste ecosystem, as lesser waste, especially plastic, ends up at the highly polluting waste-to-energy plants, “she continues.
The pandemic adversely affected the entire informal waste ecosystem, and as single-use plastic consumption soared, recovery and recycling couldn’t keep pace. Waste pickers are essentially daily wage workers, and restricted mobility affects their ability to collect recyclables and earn a livelihood. With waste pickers clocking fewer hours, there was lesser income for scrap shops too. There were months during the first wave when the entire recycling industry shut down. Dry waste collection centres were deemed essential services, yet scrap shops and godowns were not, and had to close down. Collection centres stayed open during the lockdowns yet they had nowhere to send the aggregated waste, causing the waste economy to stagnate. Workers struggled to get by as they could collect but not sell the recovered recyclable waste, payments from the authorities were often in arrears and they had little to no savings to fall back on.
“It is crucial for grassroots organisations to amplify the messages of other efforts across India if we are to see a bigger shift in our waste management practises and to realise how vulnerable and essential these waste warriors are,” Malur adds.
Waste workers play a crucial environmental role
Every day, Delhi produces 12,350 tonnes of solid waste, most of which ends up at three major dumpsites: Ghazipur, Bhalaswa, and Okhla. The city has an estimated 40,000 waste pickers, with other recyclers, itinerant buyers, small and large kabadis, re-processors and other waste workers adding to a total of a 1,50,000 strong informal sector. They collect 15-20 per cent of Delhi’s total waste (in terms of weight) and 55% (in terms of volume) and recycle about 2,000 tonnes of the city’s waste each day. As in other cities, much of this recycling happens due to the toil of waste pickers.
In addition, as unsegregated waste accumulates at landfills, rotting wet waste releases methane – a highly combustible gas. This results in spontaneous combustion of waste, with plastics, among other hazardous, polluting materials being set on fire. Sometimes, waste is incinerated at landfills before being buried. This adds significantly to Delhi’s air pollution issues. Waste pickers can help Delhi tackle some of its air pollution problems by diverting waste from reaching dumping sites.
As a partner of the CounterMEASURE initiative under the United Nations Environment Programme, funded by Japan, Chintan Environmental Research and Action Group (Chintan) strives for better waste recovery between source and landfills. Their work with waste pickers ensures lesser plastics end up in the Yamuna, and further downstream into the Ganges, and the Bay of Bengal. In 2018, Chintan’s report titled Wastepickers: Delhi’s Forgotten Environmentalists, highlighted the role of the informal sector in tackling the burgeoning problem of waste management and plastic pollution.
“Ironically, Delhi’s Master Plan 2041 talks in detail about solid waste management and environmental pollution, yet doesn’t make provisions for the labour involved, nor for the space and infrastructure they require,” says Shruti Sinha, Manager of Policy and Outreach at Chintan. “Recently, many dhalaos (large three-walled concrete structures used by waste pickers to collect garbage from a locality or market), have been put to alternate use. A study by Chintan in 2021 found that 73.8% of waste pickers do not have access to sheltered spaces, which makes it difficult to work through monsoon and winter,” Sinha continues.
The Chintan report advocates establishing partnerships between the informal and private sectors, as well as the public, legitimising the informal workers, developing waste management protocols, and training and monitoring waste workers. This would ensure they can operate effectively in their niche while performing key environmental roles.
A waste management blueprint
The CounterMEASURE initiatives are committed to identifying sources and pathways of plastic pollution and finding solutions to prevent city-sourced plastic from reaching rivers and oceans. Working at the grassroots level with stakeholders in the waste economy, is an effective way to raise awareness about source segregation to reduce mismanaged waste, as well as build on existing knowledge to inform policy decisions.
The 2021 report titled Waste-Wise Cities published by the Centre for Science and Environment (CSE) and Niti Aayog, inspected solid waste management initiatives in 28 cities to understand the mechanisms that worked best. Across cities, grassroots initiatives concur that the integration of the informal and the formal sector is an effective solution for waste management. The report found that decentralised systems and public-private partnerships would be ideal for India to achieve its ‘smart cities’ objectives.
City planners and municipal organisations should take cognisance and find ways to integrate the waste ecosystem. This would not only ensure better living and working standards for the informal sector but also incentivise their role in last-mile resource recovery and recycling, while providing cities with a decentralised, cost-efficient blueprint for waste management.
Read more: [Explainer] The cost of plastic waste
Banner image: Kabadiwallas are among many players in the informal sector – a near-invisible, shadowy waste economy that we rarely acknowledge or appreciate. Photo by Bijay Chaurasia/Wikimedia Commons.