Meeting India’s waste pickers

Image: SWaCH

With its 3 million-odd inhabitants, Pune is the ninth most populous city in India. To a European visitor, it looks like a typical Indian city, with its street commerce, daredevil traffic, and — yes — its litter. But Pune stands out in a number of ways.

First, it is both one of the oldest cultural and intellectual centres in the Asia-Pacific region and one of the fastest growing cities. Second, with its long academic history and current role as an IT and tech powerhouse, it ranks as the second most liveable city in India. And last but not least, it is one of the places where waste management works best, according to Harshad Barde, a board member at SWaCH (Solid Waste Collection and Handling), a waste management co-operative. In 2016, over 50,000 tonnes of material was collected in the door-to-door collection system in Pune, one of the highest figures in India.

Waste management and material recycling is an essential component of a circular economy, but it needs to be part of a wider systems redesign. What the optimal design of a system in which no material is simply discarded as ‘waste’ looks like will of course vary depending on many factors. In large parts of the world, the business of collection and recycling is completely managed by informal workers. By looking at the example of Pune, we can explore how this system works today, and how it could thrive in the future.

Waste picking in India — more and more professionalised

When people think about informal waste collectors, or ‘waste pickers’ as they call themselves, they often see an image of poor people from the dalit (untouchable) caste, sorting through stinking garbage in an open landfill for some valuable morsels. Dirty, dangerous and unwanted, with very little prospect of leading to a better life.

Waste picking takes place in many countries around the world, at different levels of sophistication and professionalism

While this image is unfortunately still true in many areas, a lot has happened to improve the life of waste pickers thanks to organisations like KKPKP (short for Kagad, Kach, Patra Kashtakari Panchayat, a trade union). “The organisation started at the grassroots to deal with burning issues like access to credit, education, health care etc.”, explains Malati Gadgil from KKPKP. “But soon we were talking about the recycling that’s done by the waste pickers, their contribution in mitigating climate change and generally in solid waste management.” KKPKP now organises more than 10,000 waste pickers. Its advocacy for basic rights for the workers led to the formation of SWaCH. SWaCH is in the business of providing door-to-door collection service to Pune’s various property types (hotels, households, malls etc.) and makes sure their services are regular and reliable.

A day in the life

To illustrate how the network is organised, let’s take a look at a typical working day of Supriya Bhadakwad, who’s been a waste picker since she was about 10 years old. By the time she’s about to start her daily round in a nearby middle-class neighbourhood, she’s already been up six hours, also working in housekeeping and tending to her own home.

Supriya swiftly carries out her door to door collection in a pre-determined district, a middle-class neighbourhood she services every day. The routine consists of taking solid waste from the homes, sometimes handed to her directly from the residents, and sorting out the organic waste, recyclables and non-recyclables separately. The household waste ends up in different barrels in her hand-pulled cart. Having worked in the same neighbourhood for approximately six years, Supriya has built strong rapport with the residents; despite being a low-caste citizen she is respected and appreciated. She describes that that despite being hard-earned, this recognition is a lot better than the denouncing attitude the ‘intermittent’ waste pickers on streets and dumps often receive.

How does this informal waste collection work as a system? And how do the waste pickers get paid? Harshad explains that until 10 years ago or before SWaCH, the only money waste pickers could earn used to come from the scrap value of the materials they managed to sell after sorting and cleaning. SWaCH has slowly but steadily created a trustful relationship with the Pune Municipality, leading to a contractual agreement in which the Municipality pays SWaCH an administrative fee to coordinate waste collection throughout the city, and households are enabled to join the door-to-door collection scheme for a set fee. To be paid for the service of collecting household waste leads to a dramatic increase in stability and security for those waste pickers, while they are still able to get an income from the reliable supply of materials. Some waste pickers, who feel that the regular hours and added responsibility is a constraint, have opted out. But more and more are opting in.

About the activities of the SWaCH Cooperative — click the ‘CC’ button to activate subtitles

As a reliable, professional workforce that guarantees waste management and recycling in India, the waste pickers (or ‘Kachra-vechak’ in Marathi) have become increasingly important for the growing country’s strained infrastructure. They fulfil the crucial task of waste management, both in more affluent neighbourhoods and in the ‘slums’, at no or very low cost for the government. In addition, waste picking provides a livelihood for hundreds or thousands of people who would otherwise have few means of advancing socioeconomically.

How does this contribute to a circular economy?

India is well on its way to becoming a more mature economy. Is it right that informal waste picking evolves to something that carries the responsibility of a more sophisticated waste management process? Surely waste pickers will eventually be replaced by mechanised collection and automated sorting? After all, wouldn’t most people agree that it’s desirable to avoid having waste collection be done manually by humans? And if that is the case, will the social empowerment projects run by entities like KKPKP and SWaCH across India fail?

Admittedly, that’s one possible pathway. But there is another scenario:

Waste pickers in India increasingly organise themselves to provide reliable, high-quality services to society. While the work is still manual (or more so than in the traditionally ‘developed’ world), the direct human contact provides more accuracy in waste sorting than automated systems that rely on high speed. Models like door-to-door collection also mean that human waste management reach areas that aren’t accessible for vehicles, like slums and other densely packed neighbourhoods.

Appropriate solutions: manual waste picking may be better suited to places that automated systems cannot reach

Waste pickers also provide an added cohesiveness in society, which is a crucial game-changer in a culture shaped by the caste system. Digital technology might soon be used to monitor and verify decentralised waste management services, so that all waste pickers could be fairly compensated with the help of, for example, their mobile device. It could also lower the barrier, and even provide incentives for citizens to take part in the collection and sorting instead of littering. Concepts like blockchain have already begun to be taken up in public services, and their implementation requires no added hardware or infrastructure investments. KKPKP’s Malati Gadgil points out that if done right, advancing waste management technologies can lead to significant skill development for waste pickers, which would lead to further opportunities elsewhere in the labour market.

As with all decentralised systems, the network effects can be very large. More waste collection would increase the economic case for businesses that use secondary materials as input (such as plastics recycling and anaerobic digestion). Better quality and higher availability of recycled materials — often at a local level — would induce an increased use of them in new packaging and other applications. As the decentralised waste collection system grows, more people will become informed of how it works, and able to participate, leading to higher collection rates, less pollution, and reduced societal costs associated with the effects of unmanaged waste.

But doesn’t this mean that people will have to remain poor? While it is true that (manual) decentralised waste management currently relies on the workforce being paid very little, the network effects of scaling the system could change that situation significantly. Today, the Pune households pays SWaCH an annual fee for the service of waste management. As the quality of that service (and cost savings of the municipality) increases, so should the prize commanded by the waste picker unions. And as the trust for the system increases, it will also foster entrepreneurship and new businesses to form around the decentralised ecosystem of materials. Additional income is already generated by refining and selling secondary raw materials, which could evolve into a decentralised industry of reuse, refurbishment and recycling of more durable goods.

Supriya, the seasoned waste picker, co-owns and works in a ‘Scrap Shop’ every day. It is no more than a shed, but it turns around 5000 kg of recyclables — mostly plastics — every week, delivered there by numerous waste pickers. Selling the collected recyclables is a major share of a waste picker’s income, so imagine the added value it could bring if more of the materials were collected and commanded a higher price in the marketplace. Already, a plethora of products and materials are recovered in Pune. The SWaCH headquarters has a small workshop for collection and sorting of clothes and other textiles. Harshad explains that this centre started with people donating old clothes and other things like books and toys which would not be considered ‘waste’. They are sorted and sold in slums but also increasingly to more affluent clients, with an aim of creating a financially self-sustaining reuse and recycling value chain for materials.

We also need a system that works

There is no universal rule saying that a decentralised, comparatively manual waste management system is inferior to a centralised and mechanised one. Informal waste management does indeed have the potential to be a viable and efficient alternative, if the appropriate incentives and mechanisms are put in place. Added quality and scale in waste picking services lead to added security and ability to rise out of poverty for more people. The waste picker unions provide opportunities for training and education, reducing illiteracy and improving worker safety. Since 1993 when KKPKP became registered, more than 90% of its members who were illiterate now all have literate children. All the members receive life insurance (rs 30,000) and two different health insurance schemes.

Obviously, there are several barriers for the waste picking sector to become a more comprehensive service in waste management. Since recycled materials are a key source of the sector’s income, it is vital that the waste pickers can sell what they collect. But many materials — plastics in particular — are by their very design unrecyclable. Among the biggest culprits you find multi-material laminates (such as pouches and crisp bags) and small-format, single-use packaging (such as sachets). Anyone who’s been to India knows that such items are, quite literally, everywhere, and that single-use formats dominate over bulk packaging in everything from snacks and sauces to shampoo and other hygiene products. According to Supriya, the amount of sachets has increased significantly over the past 10 years. As they are of no material value to recyclers, they contaminate the recycling stream and make their job harder.

The solution to such a design problem, both in India and elsewhere, must come from business and packaging design choices. It is impossible to create a material management system that works if products and packaging are put on the market without being designed for reuse or recycling. The New Plastics Economy initiative aims to create a plastics system that works, and its $2 million innovation prize targets precisely the packaging applications that causes Supriya and her colleagues the most trouble. But more work is evidently needed to capture the material value of what we in everyday language call ‘waste’. Billions of dollars are lost to the economy today because we haven’t figured out a system where we capture this value. Perhaps the waste pickers in Pune can inspire us to rethink it?

If you want to read more about the potential for a circular economy in India, please read the Ellen MacArthur Foundation’s report Circular Economy in India: Rethinking growth from for a long-term prosperity. For more on the New Plastics Economy initiative, please visit