The India waste problem is urgent. Official figures say around 62 million tonnes of solid waste is produced in the country every year of which only 43 million tonnes is collected, only 12 million tonnes treated and the rest dumped. Ten million tonnes of garbage is generated in just the metropolitan cities: Delhi, Mumbai, Chennai, Hyderabad, Bangalore and Kolkata. The landfills of most of these cities are already overflowing, with no space to accommodate fresh garbage waste.
Landfills are reaching a dangerous peaking point, as waste is not segregated. Organic waste produces methane, which combined with plastics is a time bomb. Early this year landfill at Deonar started on fire twice. The smoke from the fire choked Mumbai, alerting India of the perill of this happening in more landfills of the country.
Not surprising Indian government is investing in waste management and looking for innovative methods to dispose and recycle its waste, as well as directives to municipal authorities creating citizen awareness programs. Waste is as much about people as it is about materials. Not much can be accomplished if population doesn’t believe their efforts are worthwhile, and the current state of affairs is that people believe that their segregated waste is being put together for lack of proper trucks, so they stop doing it.
The most efficient waste segregators at the moment are local waste pickers. Informal waste picking is an entry level job for the marginal and a source of discrimination and health hazards. As it turns out, informal sector waste pickers are very good at separating waste, with an advantage over modern machinery at saving energy and repair.
Around 39 million people, around three percent of India’s population, are involved in manual scavenging, e-waste or other waste management. Waste picking is a dangerous job for people, with multiple health hazards that plague the marginal who are mostly not covered by social security or haven’t even basic rights. They experience brutality and discrimination, with the rest of society blaming them for crime, when in reality they feed a circular economy.
Data presented by Bharati Chaturvedi Founder and Director of Chintan NGO at Smart City Expo World Congress 2015 shows that waste pickers:
- Represent 1% of the recycling population
- Help reduce GHGs
- Handle 15-20% of waste
- Use sustainable mobility in part of the recycling of waste
- Add 700% value to plastic
- Help with municipal savings
The goal of Chintan NGO is to convert waste into livelihoods to produce inclusive and clean cities. They do this by making waste pickers co-create their jobs helping them by covering their basic needs of health, social inclusion, social security, training and basic rights. They also make sure that no children of the families need to work in trash, putting them to school. Over 5000 children have already been impacted, currently 2115, and 64% of the kids in school are girls.
Circular economy completes with a waste market. Here large companies such as hotel chains can sell or trade their waste and where they can choose to help the waste pickers. E-waste is also being recovered and recycled this way. Quality control helps them compete in the market.
But organizations such as Chintan need to be protected. The value is not only in the money they generate, but in regeneration and upward mobility. As the waste management is realized as a valuable source of money, other intangibles need to be valued. Policy and regulation is needed to protect this local economy.