Plastics have been universally reviled as one of the scourges of our time, a result of our increasingly consumerist lifestyles, and the recognition of their toxicity when left to degrade in the environment has now been overstated. Yet we continue to manufacture virgin plastic, derived from crude oil mined from the earth, and we continue to dump single use and other end of life plastic products into our landfills, fields, and water bodies, including 8 million tonnes a year into our oceans! The increasing need to recycle plastics is also being recognized however, and global recycling rates have steadily increased over the last few decades.
Managing organic waste has always been one of the biggest obstacles to reducing the frightening mountains of waste going into landfills every day.
With the staggering quantities of food consumed daily by Chennai’s 8.6 million, organic waste is by far the largest contributor - over 45%. When compared with recyclable waste, the percentage of organic waste that is being kept out of landfills is sadly, negligible. Slowly, people are waking up to the illuminating fact that managing recyclable waste is relatively easy! All it involves is segregation and storage and it can easily be sold to kabadiwallas. Taking a step back, most householders already know that recyclables can be sold to kabadiwallas . But that itself hasn’t reached anywhere near its full potential, and is the motive behind our work. With regards to organic waste, it is the lack of knowledge about how exactly it can be managed that poses a big challenge.
Any and all waste management interventions are futile if they don’t address one fundamental problem: the lack of waste segregation at source. As long as people put their recyclable, organic, hazardous and sanitary waste in the same bin, the corporation collects and dumps it at either Perungudi or Kodungaiyur landfills. Sadly, the majority of Chennai’s citizenry take this for granted to be the only solution to household waste. Before you nod in agreement, let’s look at some facts: 47% of the waste going into landfills is organic waste and 18% is recyclable waste. Furthermore, out of the total 4500 tonnes generated everyday, 68% is residential waste. Instead of being discarded, recyclable waste can be sold to our amazing scrap dealer network who already keep a significant amount of waste out of landfills, thereby increasing their revenue as well. Organic waste too, can be dealt with through a process called ‘composting’. For those of you who don’t know, it is a biological process by which micro-organisms break down organic matter into a nutrient rich, soil like substance called compost. To sum this up, if our residences, commercial establishments and institutions simply managed organic and recyclable waste properly, we can keep over 60% of our waste out of landfills!
Chennai generates 4500 tonnes of solid waste per day, which ends up in both of its landfills. It also hosts an informal sector that comprises a robust ecosystem of scrap dealers who recover and recycle incredible amounts of waste everyday. We created our Information Service so that waste is diverted away from landfills and channeled to these scrap dealers or ‘kabadiwallas’. We hope that in the long run this keeps a significant amount of waste out of landfills, while increasing the kabadiwallas’ income and creating a platform for discussions to include them in waste management policy.
Although often dismissed by proponents of the dismal science, the fact remains that the global economy has hitherto been based on an exploitative model of natural resource consumption. Post industrialisation, a fundamental concept has pervaded all conventional economic models viz. the take-make-dispose paradigm. This ‘linear system’ of resource use involves the extraction of resources, manufacturing of products which are sold to consumers, and eventually disposal of those products. The continued practice of this system is coming up against increasing constraints arising from resource scarcity and alternatives incorporating reuse, refurbishment and recycling of materials are fast replacing the viability of sourcing virgin materials. The world’s growing and increasingly affluent population has caused an overuse of resources, higher price levels and increasing market volatility.
One of the interesting things we’ve noticed over the last couple of months of fieldwork is that there exists a strong hierarchy in the kinds of materials scrap-dealers prefer to deal with. Often, these preferences can be broken down into super-specialized items. For instance, the informal sector views plastic as more than 10 specific sub-categories, each of which has a distinct price point. And while they’re more than willing to pay competitive prices for some of them (for instance, a PET bottle), they tend to steer clear from others, such as Tetrapak and shiny packaging material. In fact, even those scrap-dealers that buy plastic as a whole generally sift out the items of value and discard these materials.
Mangai Akka, who became the owner of Chellathai Waste Paper Mart in 2006, talks to me about how juggling the shop and her home has been quite the difficult task for her. By the time she sends off her eldest son and her younger girls to college, she says it’s really late for her to open the shop. This is something that she refuses to compromise on, even though her children are old enough to take care of themselves. To her, the children come first. Widowed at the young age of 24, Mangai Akka tells me her only ambition in life is to make sure her children have the best of everything and that they don’t lack for anything.
We are really excited to announce the launch of a free online information service that can help you find your neighbourhood scrap-dealer! By using this platform, you can ensure that your recyclable waste is being responsibly managed, rather than ending up in a landfill. Scrap-dealers have been collecting waste for decades now and have already formed links with recyclers across the country. This includes both local recyclers, as well as recycling hubs as far as Gujarat, Rajasthan and Delhi.
In the 1980s, waste-pickers in Colombia faced the most intense forms of social stigmatization and attack. A group of vigilantes, intent on ‘socially cleansing’ the urban landscape, began to launch targeted attacks on what they perceived as unclean elements — whom they referred to as ‘disposables’ — including waste-pickers, beggars and prostitutes. The violence reached a culmination in 1992, when eleven corpses of waste-pickers, harvested of organs, were found at a university in Barranquilla. To this day, the 1st of March is celebrated as Global Waste Pickers’ Day in remembrance of the massacre.
Official attitudes towards informal waste networks vary from city to city, running the gamut from outright rejection to models of partial incorporation. Martin Medina, one of the key authorities in the field, explains how public policy towards waste-pickers and scrap-dealers is generally reflective of societal attitudes towards them.
What do Indian farmers and rag-pickers have in common? At face level, both groups couldn’t be more different: one’s livelihood is based on producing crops, while the other earns a living by salvaging waste. But interestingly, both operate within sectors that are structured in a very inequitable fashion.
When I thought of the area ‘Besant Nagar’, one of the eastern most localities in Chennai city (sharing a border with the Bay of Bengal), I admit that what used to come to my mind was: a) the beach and b) Kalakshetra. Growing up in Chennai, those are the two attractions that I have identified the locality with. However, with the determined purpose of mapping kabadiwalla shops in the locality, I set out one weekend there and what I found surprised me more than I’d like to disclose.
I was recently reading a bi-weekly news roundup on waste pickers, and it occurred to me that the publication is a great way to help readers see the bigger picture. The free newsletter that I was reading is published by Women in Informal Employment: Globalizing and Organizing (WIEGO). The group — it is a global network, and not focussed exclusively on women — is dedicated to the working poor in the informal economy.
Chennai has a thriving informal market for scrap paper; most neighbourhoods have local kabadiwallas who buy paper from homes and other generators at the market price. This is just the tip of the iceberg, though, since this paper is a crucial part of a much larger recycling network. It’s rather ironic to note that both the paper currency in our wallets and the scrap paper we sell to kabadiwallas carry value.
Walking through the streets of Chennai, hunting for kabadiwallas, I realised it is a relatively easy job to find them. Interspersed between houses and shops, many of these ubiquitous kabadiwallas often go unnoticed. And yet, they are the core of the informal waste management sector, the silent engines that take part in the process of waste management in the city. And my intention is to understand this ecosystem.
As consumption patterns across the globe are soaring, so is the corresponding generation of waste – and some of the statistics related to this are alarming. A recent World Bank study estimates that ten years ago, the daily per capita waste generation of the world’s urban population (around 2.9 billion) was around 0.64 kg.
Like most countries that are growing quickly and witnessing rapid urbanization, India is beginning to face serious concerns regarding the disposal of its waste. Until now, most urban local governments have adopted an approach to waste management that is neither sustainable nor particularly responsible – identifying landfill sites, filling them with mixed waste for periods that can stretch over decades, and eventually moving on to a new location.