There are roughly 1.5 million waste pickers in India. Waste picking ranks lowest in the hierarchy of urban informal occupations in the country and the waste pickers struggle to lead healthy and productive lives, despite their economic and environmental contribution to society, and despite several commendable efforts by key actors to improve their situation.
Many waste pickers have to endure a difficult everyday reality including regular harassment and extortion – not to mention the health hazards they are subjected to when handling waste. Further, many are self-employed workers with no formal legal relationship with the municipality or the recyclable traders, and may completely lack access to social security benefits.
62 million tons of waste is generated in India annually. Only 60% of the municipal waste is collected and a meagre 15% of the municipal waste is processed and treated. On the other side of the spectrum, waste pickers are a vital part of the waste management system. Thanks in part to the waste pickers, India has one of the highest PET recycling rates in the world, over 90 percent of all the PET that’s manufactured in the country is recycled or reused. In fact, waste pickers are the largest driving force behind recycling, given that they are the ones sorting through trash and pulling out recyclable materials.
If challenges related to the waste pickers lives and the waste sector can be addressed, waste pickers have the potential to be a key player in a global circular system – and could not only contribute to the health and state of our planet, but also uplift themselves out of poverty.
Collective efforts to create long-lasting change
This initiative takes a holistic approach to improve the living conditions of waste pickers by supporting them in various aspects. By facilitating collaboration across stakeholders and sectors we address the basic needs of the waste picking community such as education, health, safety and access to fundamental rights, as well as increasing economic opportunities.
The initiative also has a strong focus on equity, addressing the basic needs of marginalized groups such as women and girls. In order to succeed we work with different partners from different sectors in this project, all of them bringing their expertise into the collective effort, working towards common goals. Working together will result in lasting impact at a scale beyond what any actor could achieve alone.
- BBC Media Action – Sector perception change program, to improve professional pride among waste pickers and encourage Bangalore’s general population to respect and value waste picking
- LabourNet and CARE – Development of alternate livelihood options
- Hasiru Dala – Improved linkages to government schemes, to enable access to basic services; and establishing counselling programs to reduce incidence of substance abuse and domestic violence in waste picker households
- Save The Children – Improved access to quality education, to enable social mobility for waste pickers’ children
- WaterAid – Affordable access to WASH facilities for waste picker households, with a focus on clean drinking water
- Social Alpha – Development of new waste streams, so as to increase waste picker income, and improve the stability of this income
- The/Nudge Foundation – Operates as a local backbone organization to coordinate the initiative
Using innovation to push social change
In December 2020, Social Alpha and H&M Foundation launched Techtonic, an innovation challenge to identify and curate disruptive innovations addressing issues in waste management and improving the livelihoods of waste pickers. The focus is on supply chains efficiencies, logistics traceability and waste to value systems. Five winners, announced in April 2021, will join the first cohort of Social Alpha Waste Innovations Accelerator.
Find more in-depth information about the program at saamuhikashakti.org.