The Hindu (Mumbai)

Understand­ing the world of the informal waste picker

- Neethi P. Drupad U. The views expressed are personal

n 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 oftenforgo­tten, hypermargi­nalised 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 microenter­prises 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 nonrecogni­tion, nonreprese­ntation, and exclusion from social security schemes and legal protection frameworks.

OWhat 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 201718 indicates that there are nearly 1.5 million waste pickers within India’s urban workforce, with half a million being women.

On average, an individual waste picker collects between 60 kg to 90kg 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 is a Senior Researcher at the Indian Institute for Human Settlement­s (IIHS), Bengaluru, and Advisory Member to the Karnataka Labour Policy Committee is an intern at the Indian Institute for Human Settlement­s 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 largescale displaceme­nt of informal waste pickers.

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.

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

powerful ruling Congress party during the general election in 1967 and the poll outcome. The national parties should not forget that they have no presence of their own in Tamil Nadu and need the support of the Dravidian parties.

P.A.K. Murthy,



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