This story originally appeared in the November 2017 issue of Plastics Recycling Update. Subscribe today for access to all print content.
When asked their impressions of the SWaCH waste picker cooperative, a handful of well-heeled residents of Pune, India had a quick reply: “Can somebody train those women to be less arrogant?”
It’s a jarring request in a country still hobbled by the enduring injustices of the caste system. Nearly all of India’s estimated 1.5 million waste pickers populate the bottom rungs of the country’s rigid caste hierarchy, so it’s surprising to hear that some Pune waste pickers are known for holding their heads up high.
Then again, the SWaCH cooperative has reason to be proud. The group’s roughly 2,800 members, most of whom are women, operate a door-to-door waste collection network that is municipally supported.
Each day, they service around 500,000 households (half of Pune city) and handle up to 1,000 tons of waste, 22 percent of which they sell for recycling.
What’s more, as SWaCH and its mother trade union have evolved over the past 20 years, they have brought health benefits, education, and economic and personal protection to individuals who would otherwise be among the most vulnerable in Indian society.
The labor organization effort stands out as an enlightening case study for other large municipalities in developing corners of the world, where concepts like waste-to-energy are increasingly jeopardizing informal waste and recycling structures.
“SWaCH is a social, environmental and economic boon for our city,” said Pune’s municipal commissioner, Kunal Kumar. “We expect this model to not just sustain, but expand.”
Gaining global support
As a nation, India produces roughly 6.8 million tons of waste per day, and 17 to 22 percent of that total is collected by the informal sector, a segment that includes scrap dealers, specialized dealers, recyclers and waste pickers. The working conditions for pickers run a wide spectrum. Some individuals forage through landfills and urban dumpsites; others work as part of organized doorstep collection cooperatives such as SWaCH.
Not surprisingly, Indian waste pickers have traditionally had little say when it comes to the direction of municipal solid waste management systems. However, the status and inclusion of waste pickers is starting to be supported in national and international solid waste regulation, thanks in part to the unifying force of global networks like WIEGO (Women in Informal Employment: Globalizing and Organizing), the Global Alliance of Waste Pickers, and GAIA (Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives).
Those organizations have helped institutions worldwide understand that waste picker-based solid waste management systems can help save government money and reduce greenhouse gases by increasing recycling via largely non-polluting forms of transportation. They’ve also made the argument that structures using pickers provide employment for those who need it most.
Those upsides of informal organization are certainly on display in Pune, a city of just over 3 million people that’s located on the western edge of India, around 90 miles south of Mumbai.
Today, Pune is home to about 8,000 waste pickers. The KKPKP waste picker trade union, which is the parent of SWaCH, has an estimated 5,000 active members. In any given neighborhood, one can find SWaCH workers pushing their orange carts through traffic, or deftly hauling large buckets up and down stairs as they collect waste at residential buildings.
According to academic research published in 2013, in Pune, the informal waste trade provides jobs for 630 people per 10,000 annual tons of material, compared with just one job that would be created by incinerating or landfilling that weight. Comparing the cost of their services with what the municipality would spend if transporting materials and hiring workers on minimum wages for the same work, SWaCH calculates that their model saves the Pune municipality about $8 million annually.
But bringing waste pickers to the city’s doorsteps hasn’t been easy.
In the late 1980s, Poornima Chikarmane and Lakshmi Narayan, then social workers from Pune’s Department of Adult Education, started working in the city’s slums to devise income generation projects for women who were essentially homemakers. They were left with the nagging discomfort that the women who most needed support were not those they found at home, but those out working in the streets scraping through dumpsters and dumpsites to earn a meager income selling waste.
There was little precedent for waste picker organizing. So Chikarmane and Narayan built relationships with local waste pickers and rallied a small but committed group of women who set out to convince local government and the unions that waste work was in fact a profession. In 1993, they amassed the numbers and conviction needed to start a trade union for waste pickers that they called the Kagad Kach Patra Kashtakari Panchayat (KKPKP).
When the young union first summoned waste pickers for an open forum to discuss issues the union should address, a whopping 1,500 people attended. KKPKP went on to eliminate child labor from Pune’s waste picking, protect pickers from police harassment, provide scholarships for children of waste pickers to ensure retention in formal education, and secure health insurance, welfare benefits, pensions and a credit cooperative society for its members. Those support structures allowed Pune’s waste pickers to recover greater amounts of recyclable materials, and the workers were able to assemble themselves into small waste collection groups serving select neighborhoods.
A ‘pro-poor’ partnership
By 2004, Indian cities received directives to implement the country’s Municipal Solid Waste Rules of 2000. KKPKP saw this as an opportunity, and the group lobbied the Pune municipality to support a doorstep waste collection pilot that KKPKP eventually called SWaCH (Solid Waste Collection and Handling). The municipality, which initially provided pushcarts but paid nothing, was happy with the outcome and in 2008 signed a five-year contract with SWaCH.
Now considered a pro-poor public private partnership, the 2,800-member cooperative is managed by four zone coordinators, 15 ward coordinators, 76 division coordinators and a handful of administrative organizers. The municipality is required to provide equipment and safety gear, maintain an office and resource recovery centers, provide welfare benefits and funding for management and operational costs, and give a subsidy to help cover collection in the slums. In exchange, SWaCH is to provide daily doorstep collection of segregated (wet and dry) waste.
SWaCH collects monthly user fees of 50 rupees (about 75 cents) per household to supplement what members make from selling recyclables. Over the years, SWaCH has expanded its services to include on-site composting, used clothes collection and resale, e-scrap collection, and a handful of specialized services like the provision of recovered plastics for conversion to 3-D printer filament. The group is also developing plans to open shops that recover, repair and resell electronics and appliances.
There’s no question that KKPKP and SWaCH have brought major gains to the lives of waste pickers and Pune’s urban poor. “When I used to pick from the roadside, I always had problems with the police,” says Sindhubai Galfade, a longtime member of both organizations. “The union helped protect us, but SWaCH gave me a new identity. I wear a uniform, I no longer suffer harassment and I have a reliable income stream.”
Still, though SWaCH is known for its collaboration with the relatively progressive Pune municipality, the relationship has never been entirely smooth. After letting its first five-year contract with SWaCH lapse for more than two years, the municipality recently signed another five-year contract. This was only after waste pickers launched a major campaign denouncing the municipality for failing to dole out more than half of the funds and implements promised under their first deal. The municipality did ultimately make good on those provisions, but it is already delaying funds under the new contract.
During the gap in contracts, SWaCH coordinators were laid off by the dozens and their salaries dropped well below the income of an average SWaCH waste picker, which can range from 3,000-25,000 rupees (about $50 to $400) monthly.
Knowing that the groups will likely face similar battles moving forward, SWaCH and KKPKP have begun organizing monthly empowerment trainings for waste picker leaders covering subjects like public speaking and organizing, solid waste management systems, feminism, health and economics. A Rotary International grant covered the costs of the first year of trainings, and SWaCH and KKKPK are seeking funding to expand the trainings to include subjects such as science, math, history and sociology.
Putting members’ advocacy skills to the test, SWaCH and KKPKP recently launched a major “Red Dot” campaign promoting the implementation of new state and national rules mandating the segregated disposal of sanitary waste, such as diapers and menstrual pads. To protect their own health, waste pickers are asking that Pune residents wrap and mark their sanitary waste with a red dot. The campaign has received a tidal wave of publicity and support, with its PSA video drawing more than 4 million Facebook views and 90,000 shares in the first week.
Waste pickers now want to take the Red Dot campaign further by pressuring companies to establish long-term solutions to the problem of sanitary waste. Procter & Gamble has developed a technology for autoclaving sanitary waste and extracting valuable super-absorbent polymers (SAP) for recycling.
Though the consumer goods giant has been discussing the technology with SWaCH/KKPKP and the Pune municipality for months, the company has still not established a facility in Pune.
Other companies, like Kimberly-Clark, have also been consulting with SWaCH/KKPKP to better understand the realities of sanitary waste disposal in India.
“The poor are the first to feel the brunt of middle class excesses since emerging economies – and the slums within them – are ‘safe’ places to dump the consequences of such excess,” said Malati Gadgil, a long-time KKPKP and SWaCH organizer. “Yet … it impacts the health of the poor and puts a strain on health care and the government. So the middle class should care. And, by extension, companies will begin to care. The movement has started.”
A battle with big business
The SWaCH model has captured the attention of circular economy champions with the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, who occasionally call on Gadgil for her pro-poor perspective on development. But in India, pickers are increasingly in competition with larger material management efforts from both the public and private sectors.
Indian leaders are currently looking to incineration as a solution to the country’s waste. For instance, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Clean India initiative is said to be promoting waste incineration while merely paying lip service to the upgrade and protection of India’s waste pickers. And India is not unique in that waste-to-energy facilities are typically situated in poor communities.
In Pune, small and large businesses promoting gasification and pyrolysis are cropping up regularly, with little regulatory oversight or emissions testing. Other businesses vying for access to waste are also flourishing. Pune’s municipally sponsored My Pet project encourages residents to “be green” by depositing their plastic bottles in public bottle crushing receptacles, overlooking the reality that those bottles would otherwise serve as income for waste pickers.
International groups supporting waste pickers argue that private waste-to-energy systems, which are commonly funded by Western countries through international development initiatives, are one of the most significant and growing threats to recycling livelihoods around the world.
“It’s a mistake for countries like India to always look to Europe and the U.S. for waste management solutions,” Gadil said. “Our reality is very different here.”
And it’s clear that waste picker organizations will continue to use their skills mobilizing and building public support to make the segment’s voice loud and clear to Indian policymakers. In recent years, in collaboration with the Alliance of Indian Wastepickers, leaders from KKPKP and SWaCH successfully lobbied for a slew of new national waste management rules supporting the inclusion and rights of waste pickers.
In Pune, waste pickers have claimed their place in India’s labor history, but their place in India’s future is very much dependent on their ability to self-advocate every step of the way.
“Our members have so much history with organizing,” said Aparna Susarla, a seasoned SWaCH director. “I learn from them every day.”
Taylor Cass Talbott is an artist and waste reduction specialist from Oregon. Long interested in the informal waste sector, Cass Talbott secured funds to help design and implement SWaCH’s Red Dot campaign. She and her husband, Brodie Cass Talbott, recently spent nine months working with SWaCH/KKPKP in Pune. Learn more about her projects at livedebris.org and contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.