The day begins as early as 3 a.m. for A. Renu (33) when she walks through Kotturpuram, Thiruvanmiyur and Adyar, stopping at every garbage bin, and trying to find pieces of paper, plastic, glass and metal.

Armed with a thick iron rod, with three industry magnets at one end, she scrapes through piles of ‘masala,' (the term used among waste pickers to denote mixed waste), till 2 p.m., for an income of anything between Rs. 90 and Rs. 120 a day.

While bins near hospitals and metal workshops guarantee more useful finds, she says, her children, many a time, excitedly pick up wires or rods with live current. “Accidents happen, but we need them to work because they can run their fingers quickly through the waste to unearth little pieces of aluminium and tin,” she says.

Thousands of waste pickers like Renu earn their livelihood collecting, sorting, recycling, and selling the valuable materials thrown away by others. Experts say that the number of waste pickers in areas, including Otteri, Avadi, Palavaram, Kondangiyur, Pallikaranai, run into the thousands. “Over the years, there has been a gradual decline in the number because there is no recognition of the service they do,” says Geetha Ramakrishnan, president, Unorganised Workers' Federation.

While cities such as Pune have come out with inclusive solid waste management models that have successfully integrated waste pickers into the process, experts say that Chennai with no representative body voicing the concerns of waste pickers, has a long way to go. “Waste management cannot have technological fixes alone, it is a social issue with livelihood implications, hence it should be treated that way,” says Dharmesh Shah, the India coordinator of global NGO Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives (GAIA).

Since private companies are paid for the amount of waste collected in tonnes, a certain sense of lethargy is seen in workers who come for door-to-door collection and source segregation does not happen there. Waste pickers, says Mr. Shah, are well versed in techniques of recycle and reuse of wet and dry waste, but are left to segregate recoverables amid huge piles of dumps in landfills.

Allergies, lung problems, skin diseases, dog bites and injuries are commonplace due to their working conditions. “To retrieve copper, the wires are burnt heavily and inhaling the smoke affects their health,” says S. Anuradha, convener, Tribal Welfare Society (Tamil Nadu).

A section of waste pickers also comes from the Narikurava community, where the level of illiteracy is high. “Most of their children are also drawn into this profession because it gives them some money,” says Ms. Anuradha.

Experts say that though the Plastic Waste Management and Handling Rules 2011 notified earlier this month brings in some hope in matters of integrating waste pickers into waste management, changes are necessary at many levels. While a decentralised method of treating waste would help, they also say that source segregation should start from every household. “It has to be mandatory for every house to segregate its waste for it to be collected,” says Mr. Shah.

Besides providing waste pickers with government ID cards, building more resource recovery sheds and having compost pits for larger residential areas would help, he adds.

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