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Why Waste Pickers’ Contribution to Urban Waste Management Needs to Be Recognised

Formalising and integrating waste pickers into municipal waste management system is not only a matter of social justice but also environmental necessity.
Dealers sorting plastic waste at the Delhi-Haryana border. Photo: Elisha Vermani/The Wire

Waste pickers navigate through the landscape of waste generation, segregation, and recycling, playing a crucial role in mitigating the environmental impact of our consumption patterns. On World Environment Day this year, the global community – including governments, NGOs, and environmental activists – is rallying around a critical imperative: land restoration, desertification, and drought resilience.

Under the resonant slogan “Our land. Our future” the campaign emphasises on the urgency of safeguarding our planet’s land resources for generations to come. In this context, it becomes imperative to spotlight the often overlooked yet indispensable contribution of waste pickers to environmental sustainability. Waste pickers are the backbone of urban waste management – segregating and recycling waste to significantly reduce the burden on landfills, mitigation pollution and keeping the city clean. 

Urban centres and metropolitan cities face a daunting challenge of waste generation due to its burgeoning population and rapid urbanisation. Cities generate a staggering amount of solid waste daily, which poses significant environmental and health hazards if not managed effectively. The waste eventually finds its way to the ever expanding landfills. The national capital, with a population of 35 million, generates approximately 11,000 tonnes of municipal solid waste daily, the highest among Indian cities.

According to government data, over half of this waste ends up in landfills. Further, from 2018-19 to 2021-22, Delhi’s hazardous waste production surged fourfold, reaching nearly 24,000 metric tonnes in 2021-22, significantly exceeding the authorized 3,406 metric tonnes as recorded by the National Inventory on Hazardous Waste.

One of the crucial steps in solid waste management is segregation at the source, which involves separating recyclable materials from the waste. Waste pickers play a vital role in this process, scouring through waste to retrieve valuable materials such as plastic, paper, and metal for recycling. In Delhi, sources indicate that waste pickers in Delhi’s informal economy recycle approximately 20-25% of the 10,000 metric tonnes of waste generated daily. Their meticulous efforts not only reduce the burden on landfills but also contribute to resource conservation and energy savings.

By educating communities about the importance of waste segregation and facilitating the segregation at source, waste pickers help optimise the efficiency of waste collection and processing systems. This, in turn, enhances resource recovery, minimises environmental pollution, and fosters a culture of responsible waste management.

Also read: ‘If Only the Government Worked as Hard as Waste Pickers’

Our cities are littered with ever growing landfills but which are also sources of methane emissions, a potent greenhouse gas that contributes to climate change. Waste pickers help mitigate these emissions by reducing the organic content ending up landfills. Moreover, by salvaging materials that would otherwise be burnt, waste pickers help mitigate air pollution and its associated health impacts. They play a vital role in diverting this organic waste so it can be converted it into valuable compost. This also reduces the need for costly waste disposal. 

In the digital age, electronic waste (e-waste) has emerged as a major environmental concern due to its toxic components and improper disposal practices. Waste pickers play a crucial role in the informal recycling of e-waste by extracting metals and plastics for recycling. This prevents environmental contamination and health hazards associated with improper e-waste disposal, while also conserving valuable resources. India generates more than two million tons of e-waste annually and also imports undisclosed amounts of e-waste from other countries around the world. The majority of India’s e- waste is processed by a widely distributed network of workers in the informal economy who collect, dismantle, and recycle it. 

All these activities contribute to the reduction of carbon emissions through various mechanisms. By promoting recycling and composting, waste pickers help conserve energy and raw materials that would otherwise be consumed in the production of new goods. Additionally, their efforts in waste reduction and methane emission mitigation contribute to overall carbon footprint reduction, aligning with global efforts to combat climate change. By promoting composting initiatives and facilitating the collection of organic waste, waste pickers also contribute to soil health, agricultural productivity, and carbon sequestration.

While waste pickers’ earnings may be modest, their contributions yield significant savings for the city in terms of waste management costs. On an average, a waste picker collects about 60–90 kg of waste per day, working for about 8–10 hours (CSE, 2021). Their contributions are vital in reducing municipal costs and promoting economic efficiency. Recycling materials such as plastic, paper, glass, and metal reduces the need for raw material extraction and manufacturing processes, which are often resource-intensive and costly. By reintroducing these materials into the production cycle, waste pickers facilitate resource conservation and promote a more sustainable and circular economy. 

Waste picking provides livelihood opportunities to marginalised individuals, particularly migrants from rural areas, who lack access to formal employment. It is one of the few options available for the poor and can also promote social inclusion and economic empowerment within communities.

On World Environment Day, as we reflect on the state of our planet and the urgent need for environmental action, it is essential to acknowledge the invaluable contributions of waste pickers. They work tirelessly on the frontline of environmental sustainability, yet their efforts often go unnoticed and unappreciated. In a world where linear consumption patterns and wasteful disposal practices threaten the health of our ecosystems, waste pickers embody the spirit of resilience and resourcefulness. 

The current waste management system often overlooks the contributions of waste pickers. Formalising and integrating them into municipal waste management frameworks is not only a matter of social justice but also environmental necessity. By providing waste pickers with recognition, support, and access to essential resources and services, we can harness their expertise and to build a more sustainable and equitable waste management system.

As we celebrate World Environment Day, let us pledge to elevate the status of waste pickers, recognise their vital role in protecting the environment, and work towards building a more sustainable and inclusive future for all. By amplifying the voices of waste pickers and advocating for their rights and dignity, we can create a world where environmental stewardship is truly inclusive and equitable. It’s time to stand in solidarity with waste pickers and commit to building a waste management system that values their contributions, respects their humanity, and safeguards the health of our planet for generations to come.

Shalini Sinha is the country representative of WIEGO (Women in Informal Employment: Globalizing and Organizing), a global research-policy network that seeks to improve the status of the working poor, especially women, in the informal economy.

Rituraj Pegu is an urban researcher and is coordinator for the Delhi Roundtable on Solid Waste Management

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