Understanding the synergy between formal & informal sectors

Technology and community participation play pivotal roles in bridging the formal-informal waste worker divide

Indian rag pickers sort through garbage and pick out recyclable materials to sell at the Ghazipur landfill in Delhi, India. Photo for representation: Agnimirh Basu / CSE

India’s burgeoning waste crisis presents a unique challenge, but also a hidden opportunity. What many perceive as a burden on society holds within it the seeds of economic empowerment and sustainability. Across India, from the bustling metropolises to the rural villages, innovative initiatives are emerging, bridging the gap between formal and informal waste sectors.

In a stark projection by the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB), India’s annual municipal solid waste generation is expected to soar to a staggering 70 million tonnes by 2026. To put this immense figure into perspective: It would take approximately 59,829 Mount Everests to match the volume of 70 trillion garbage units.  

Circular economy principles pave the way for a transformative approach to waste management, advocating for the reduction of waste, the maximisation of reuse and the promotion of recycling. This shift in perspective offers a promising pathway towards sustainable development. Take, for instance, the innovative initiative in flood-prone Borchila village, Assam, led by the Assam State Rural Livelihood Mission and North Eastern Development Finance Corporation Ltd. Here, water hyacinth, once considered a nuisance, is transformed into exquisite handicrafts, which are not only sold in Indian cities but also exported abroad, earning a monthly income of Rs 10,000. 

At the heart of India’s waste management ecosystem are the unsung heroes — the waste pickers. Often marginalised and stigmatised, these individuals play a crucial role in salvaging recyclables from the vast sea of waste to earn a meagre livelihood. Grassroots initiatives like Kerala’s Haritha Karma Sena and the Northeast Waste Collective in Sangti village in Arunachal Pradesh highlight the transformative power of community-led waste management. These initiatives not only generate income but also empower marginalised communities with sustainable livelihoods.

Kerala’s Haritha Karma Sena, a women-led organisation, stands out as an example in the realm of waste management. Over the years, it has not only managed to generate Rs 10 crore from non-organic waste collection but has also empowered over 35,000 women from marginalised communities with sustainable livelihoods. 

Similarly, in remote Sangti village in Arunachal Pradesh, the community worked with the Northeast Waste Collective non-profit to establish a sustainable waste management system, through source segregation and a material recovery facility run by a local women’s self-help group. This transformed the village into an eco-tourism destination, while providing livelihoods from recycling proceeds. Sangti village demonstrates how community-led solutions through partnerships with civil society organisations can manage waste and create green jobs.

However, the challenges faced by waste pickers and informal waste workers are manifold. Often working in hazardous conditions, without proper safety equipment or social security, they bear the brunt of our society’s waste burden. Their invaluable contributions to waste management, though largely unacknowledged, bridge the gap between formal and informal waste sectors. Yet, this informal sector has long been sidelined in favour of more structured, formalised waste management systems.

Technology also plays a pivotal role in bridging the formal-informal waste worker divide. Startups like ScrapUncle are revolutionising India’s unorganised waste sector through technology-enabled platforms, formalising the scrap sector and uplifting livelihoods in the process. The platform not only formalises the scrap sector but also uplifts livelihoods, with collection partners earning significantly more than their traditional counterparts. The startup claims its collection partners earn Rs 60,000-70,000 monthly compared to Rs 30,000-35,000 for traditional dealers.

The integration of grassroots initiatives with formal waste management systems holds the key to a sustainable and equitable waste management future. Decentralisation of waste collection, segregation and composting at the community level has proven effective, emphasising the importance of community participation and ownership. 

In response to the hardships faced by farmers in Karnataka, startup Peppa Co began crafting plantable products from waste to combat paper waste and water scarcity among the organisation’s network of 840 organic farmers. Cercle X introduced a digital waste management platform in 2020 utilising blockchain technology.

Despite a few initiatives made in grassroots and tech-driven waste management solutions, the journey towards sustainable waste management is far from complete. It demands coordinated action from governments, organisations and citizens alike. Recognising and valuing the contributions of waste pickers, empowering marginalised communities and harnessing the power of technology are crucial steps towards turning India’s waste crisis into an opportunity for social, economic and environmental transformation.

As India stands at a crossroads in its waste management journey, it is crucial to embrace the transformative potential of waste, recognise the contributions of waste pickers and foster collaboration across sectors. 

Moreover, it’s imperative for governmental bodies to enact policies that prioritise the inclusion and protection of waste pickers and informal waste workers. Legal frameworks should ensure their rights, safety and access to essential services, while also incentivising the integration of informal workers into formal waste management systems. 

Collaboration between policymakers, civil society and industry stakeholders is essential to address the systemic challenges and create an enabling environment for inclusive and sustainable waste management practices. Through innovation, cooperation and a commitment to sustainability, waste can be transformed into a solution from a problem.

Kezia Shah is programme officer, Air Quality Network at Asar Social Impact Advisors. Views expressed are the author’s own and don’t necessarily reflect those of Down To Earth.

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