The story of Chennai’s kabadiwalla ecosystem | insights from our primary data


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.

In an earlier blog post, we introduced you to our newly launched Information Service. Using our initial 50-question-long survey, we set out mapping the areas Guindy, Velachery, Adyar and Besant Nagar. These four areas make up ‘zone 13’, part of the corporation zone system used to divide the city into 15 zones and further into wards. We are mapping kabadiwallas based on this zone system, proceeding one ward at a time until we complete an entire zone (For a break up of the localities included in the zones we have completed so far, see the table below). Zone 13 data was the first to be available on our information service.

The survey was complex and yielded excellent data, but was obstacle ridden, often steering the interview out of the comfort zone of the interviewee. We subsequently shortened the survey and used this to map zones 8 and 9. After a tedious data cleaning and number crunching process, we finally uploaded the data from these two zones. We also found that the information that people wanted most was the kind of material that kabadiwallas dealt with, so we incorporated this into ‘version 2’ of the information service.


Our amazing invisible recyclers | the story of Chennai’s kabadiwalla ecosystem

What emerged from our surveys is an amazing landscape of information on the informal sector ecosystem, largely invisible yet intrinsically interwoven into the urban environment. The data paints an enlightening picture of frugal yet efficient adaptation, juxtaposed against the stark image of low income urban livelihoods.

Did you know that there are over 600 kabadiwallas in these three zones alone? They recycle over 900,000 bottles every month, among numerous other materials, and generate staggering revenues amounting to crores.

The aim of this post is to present you with a picture of the intricate,  efficient, and sturdy operation that is characteristic of the informal sector. We hope, you as a resident will glean some useful tips from this and eventually manage your waste better by leveraging the scrap dealer network. Hopefully over time, as more people start to use our information service to access kabadiwallas, the waste flows and revenue generation in the informal sector will increase and less recyclable waste goes into Chennai’s overburdened landfills.


With our Neighbourhood Champions campaign in full swing, we are looking for volunteers to push the use of our Information Service and lead neighbourhood segregation. If you are interested in becoming a Neighbourhood Champion, sign up here


What we’ve learned so far:

The initial insights paint a picture of the informal ecosystem that has hitherto eluded the public eye due to a lack of interest and in-depth research. More recently however, there has been increasing discussion around the importance of the informal sector in solid waste management, and in developing countries on the whole. This is one of the overarching themes of our work and we hope to bolster this through well grounded primary and secondary research.

The primary survey has given us an incredible insight into the complex tapestry of waste flows, partnerships and processing activities of the informal waste ecosystems primary aggregators, who form the base of the waste chain. Below, we have described our most interesting observations. 


The nature of the kabadiwalla ecosystem | understanding their basic demographic profile

Kabadiwalla shops, for the most part, are small enterprises with an average of 1-2 employees. The average age of business is 12.5 years. Amazingly, we found a kabadiwalla in Chepauk who has been around for 65 years! This is a telling fact about how robust these enterprises are; no matter how much technology and urban infrastructure develop over decades, professions as elementary as scrap dealing and waste picking remain indispensable. 

Another convenient feature of this ecosystem is that most enterprises organize residential collection. This is usually done by tricycle, mini truck or a motorized tricycle called a ‘meen body vandi’. We included the kabadiwallas’ phone numbers on the information service specifically so that more people are incentivized to call them leading to an overall increase in usage. (More than 55% of them already organize door-to-door collection).


Understanding their distribution | the threat of gentrification

We found that only a small percentage of kabadiwallas own their shop space. 10% of the 204 kabadiwallas in zone 13 own their space while 67% rent. In zones 8 and 9, 13% own their space while 86% rent. We also noticed that kabadiwallas tend to be concentrated in lower income areas; in several upmarket localities they were completely absent. 

There could be many reasons for this; one primary driver is the fact that kabadiwallas can’t afford the rents in upmarket localities. MRC nagar and Besant Nagar are prime examples of this. For example in Besant Nagar, the only kabadiwallas are found in small lanes among lower income houses. As neighbourhoods gentrify, they run a risk of losing their kabadiwallas due to unaffordable local rents, and this requires a concerted policy intervention to ensure that they are allowed to remain there, given the important role they play in managing local recyclable waste.


What do kabadiwallas buy from us? 

Most revealing to the Kabadiwalla Connect team, was that the kabadiwalla network has a tried and tested system of categorization of waste based on the price a particular material is sold at. These price points in turn are governed by the availability of back-end infrastructure for that particular category. Paper for example, is divided into newspaper, cardboard, white paper, magazines etc. Newspapers are further separated into Tamil and English newspapers, as the quality of paper used is different resulting in a different price point for each. Paper unsurprisingly has a strong back-end processing infrastructure and is widely recycled. 

Plastic is similarly divided into a number of categories, many of which are local terms based on the kind of product they are derived from. For example ‘bommai plastic’ is the plastic used to make dolls - bommai is ‘doll’ in Tamil, though bommai plastic is now used to refer to a whole range of plastic goods, typically thicker plastic like molded chairs or Sintex tanks.

The vast majority of kabadiwallas take paper, plastic, glass and metal. Some of them take rubber and e-waste as well. Several of them have additional specializations in particular types of material such as old cloth. One particular kabadiwalla even takes old x-ray sheets. Click on a particular kabadiwalla shop on our information service to see the broad categories of waste s/he deals with.

                               Types of waste material that are commonly bought by kabadiwallas

                             Types of waste material that are commonly bought by kabadiwallas


How much do they make?

It is a common misconception that waste does not provide a promising revenue source.  We divided the monthly income into 10k increments from less than 10k to above 50k and one figure that stood out was that 30% of kabadiwallas in zone 13 and 22% in zone 8 and 9 earn over 50k a month! The majority seem to be in the 10 - 20k bracket but as we said in our earlier post, this is heavily reliant on the degree of specialization and access to markets. One particular kabadiwalla in Thiruvanmaiyur (whom we alluded to in the earlier post) earns over a lakh a month purely because he has narrowed his focus down to paper, which he sources from a number of printing presses. 

Pie chart showing break up of income brackets across all three zones

The most startling figures are from the total revenue generated every month in each zone from different waste categories. Data from zone 13 shows that, on average, Rs 35.6 lakhs worth of electronic waste alone is purchased every month and sold for about 39.6 lakhs. The total monthly revenue from all waste categories sold in zone 13 amounts to approximately 1.3 crores (from 204 kabadiwallas). In zones 8 and 9, the average monthly turnover from paper and plastics alone amounts to Rs. 1.5 crores! This is in just two zones – one can extrapolate these figures to get a rough idea of the total revenue that paper and plastic brings to the informal sector in all of Chennai’s 15 zones. 

The most important learning, contrary to popular belief, is that dealing in scrap can be very profitable with the appropriate knowledge transfer and access to more waste sources. 


How much you make selling to a Kabadiwalla | Price averages across materials

The average purchase price of paper across all categories is Rs 9. This is the price that you, as a resident, could get for a kg of paper if you sell to a kabadiwalla. The average purchase price of plastic per kg amounts to Rs. 16, significantly higher than paper. While prices of individual categories of plastic for example vary from as low as Rs. 2 /kg for waste plastic, they may also go as high as Rs 20/kg for white plastic, a trend noticed across waste categories.

It is interesting that this information remains largely unknown to the majority of the urban population. We hope that our information service will provide better accessibility to such information which in turn drives more residents to send their dry waste to kabadiwallas.

Average buying prices (per kg except bottles which is per unit) of most commonly traded materials


Conclusion  | celebrating our invisible recyclers

Our mapping of the first three zones has provided enough data to uncontestably champion the use of the scrap dealer network. We now have actual numbers that tell us that they already source an immense quantity of waste which they sort, aggregate, and sell up the waste chain.

Unfortunately, Kabadiwallas still face a number of socio-economic issues such as marginalisation and social exclusion. A paradigm shift in the way society views them is long overdue. This calls for greater discussion on the inclusion of the informal sector in the more formal waste management institutions.

It comes at no extra cost to you to segregate your wet and dry waste, but it could mean the difference between breaking even and making a reasonable income for the kabadiwalla. On a grander note, it would change the face of urban solid waste management in Chennai.

Visit today and find your nearest kabadiwalla.

- By Farhaad Khazvini []

1. Commissionerate of Municipal Administration, 2008 - Ready Reckoner on Municipal Solid Waste Waste Management on Urban Local Bodies.
2. Chennai Corporation website
3. Environmental Resource Management Report (1996) Municipal Solid Waste Management      Study for the Madras Metropolitan Area, ERM report, London W1M 0ER.