Understanding the world of the informal waste picker

Despite their key role in the waste value chain ecosystem, waste pickers face systemic marginalisation, severe health hazards and exclusion from legal protection

March 01, 2024 12:08 am | Updated 02:13 am IST

At a landfill, in New Delhi

At a landfill, in New Delhi | Photo Credit: SUSHIL KUMAR VERMA

On March 1, International Waste Pickers Day, waste pickers across the world will pay homage to fellow pickers who were murdered in Colombia in 1992. The world of the informal waste picker — who is an often-forgotten, hyper-marginalised worker cohort in the waste value chain ecosystem, and an indispensable but invisible part of waste management systems in India — needs to be understood.

The International Labour Organization defines the informal sector in waste management as ‘individuals or small and micro-enterprises that intervene in waste management without being registered and without being formally charged with providing waste management services’. These workers are the primary collectors of recyclable waste, playing a critical role in waste management and resource efficiency by collecting, sorting, trading and sometimes even reinserting discarded waste back into the economy. Yet, they face systemic marginalisation due to non-recognition, non-representation, and exclusion from social security schemes and legal protection frameworks.

What data shows

While reliable estimates of informal waste pickers are difficult to come by, the Centre for Science and Environment reported that the informal waste economy employs about 0.5%–2% of the urban population globally. Many are women, children and the elderly, who are often disabled, are the poorest of the urban poor, and face violence and sexual harassment often. The Periodic Labour Force Survey 2017-18 indicates that there are nearly 1.5 million waste pickers within India’s urban workforce, with half a million being women.

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On average, an individual waste picker collects between 60 kg to 90 kg of waste a day in an eight to 10 hour span of time, often undertaking hazardous work without safety equipment. Their poor health, irregular work, low income, and regular harassment are compounded by their subordinate position in the caste hierarchy. Their health issues include dermatological and respiratory health issues apart from regular injuries. Waste pickers suffer existential precarity. Private sector participation in municipal solid waste management, by design, alienates them, aggravating their vulnerability and loss of rights over waste picking. As noted by the Alliance of Indian Waste Pickers (AIW) 2023 report, private actors employ expensive machinery, offering competitive rates to waste generators such as households and businesses, which marginalises informal pickers and forces them into hazardous waste picking, such as scavenging from dump sites. This worsens their health risks, compromises income, and lowers social status. Private players and municipal authorities often cordon off dump sites, pushing them into further vulnerability.

Extended Producer Responsibility

Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) has gained traction in India as a means to enhance plastic waste management. It transfers the responsibility of waste management from municipal authorities and holds commercial waste producers accountable. EPR appears seemingly promising, with potential for social inclusion for waste pickers and other informal grassroots actors. In practice, however, as noted by Women in Informal Employment: Globalizing and Organizing (WIEGO), EPR redirects waste away from the informal sector, threatening large-scale displacement of informal waste pickers.

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The AIW has observed that EPR guidelines in India identify several stakeholders including the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB), producers, brand owners, industry, industry associations, civil society organisations, and, of course, citizens themselves. But it is unclear whether these stakeholders include informal waste pickers, or their representing organisations. Although the Solid Waste Management Rules 2016 mandate the inclusion of waste pickers in municipal solid waste management systems, they are evidently missing in the prioritisation. The EPR Guidelines 2022 published by the Ministry of Environment, Forest, and Climate Change have blatantly ignored the role of informal waste pickers in waste management and recycling.

Plastic Treaty and a just transition

Globally, waste pickers collect and recover up to 60% of all plastic which is then recycled, as in the 2022 World Economic Forum report. Despite their crucial role in sustainable recycling, their work is rarely valued and they struggle to earn a decent living. The United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and Pew reports state that in 2016 alone, informal waste pickers collected 27 million metric tonnes of plastic waste (59% of all plastic material collected for recycling), preventing it from ending up in landfills or the ocean. But they also have to bear burning plastic fumes and consume water and air tainted by microplastics. When we endorse the UN resolution to end plastic pollution, to create a legally binding agreement by 2024, the treaty must ensure a just transition for these workers.

The role of waste pickers in successful plastic management has emerged as a critical factor as India’s per capita plastic waste generation rises. As mentioned in a recent CPCB report, January 6 is plastic overshoot day for India — a country that is already among the 12 countries responsible for 52% of the world’s mismanaged waste. The EPR mechanism holds producers responsible for plastic pollution, but only involves large recycling units, bypassing an entire workforce responsible for transformation of waste to recyclable material.

Waste pickers possess traditional knowledge around handling waste, which could strengthen the EPR system and its implementation. In this context, we need to rethink the formulation of EPR norms, while also addressing how to integrate millions of informal waste pickers into the new legal framework.

Neethi P. is a Senior Researcher at the Indian Institute for Human Settlements (IIHS), Bengaluru, and Advisory Member to the Karnataka Labour Policy Committee. Drupad U. is an intern at the Indian Institute for Human Settlements. The views expressed are personal

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