an impossible coexistence

Federico Demaria and Mariel Vilella

Waste pickers survive by collecting waste and helping combat climate change; however, political and economic interests threaten their way of life and propose solutions whose environmental effects are worse.

Even if it is not your first visit to the city, your first step outside Delhi airport takes your breath away. The intense reality touches all your senses: tropical heat and humidity, smells combining spices and pollution, the roar of traffic with thousands of car horns, bright colours and strong contrasts. As usual, there is nobody there to meet us, but this time we would like to think that there is someone waiting for us incognito. Almost invisible to the eyes of locals and foreigners, a barefoot woman dressed in rags bends over a sack, holding it with one hand while she picks up what others have discarded from the ground, mostly paper and plastic. She isn’t aware of it and has other things to worry about, but this time we have come to support her fight and that of thousands of other waste pickers in Delhi.

Waste or resources?

In Delhi, as in many other capitals like São Paulo, Manila, El Cairo, Buenos Aires and Bogotá, recycling has become a common occupation among the urban poor. The history of these cities is sadly similar: neo-liberal reforms and forced national industrialisation in recent decades contribute to parallel processes of rural exodus and urban growth, leaving behind environmental and social disasters which are overshadowed by the indices of economic growth. In India the economic growth of the 1990s has mainly affected the growing urban middle class, while large sections of the population, especially in rural areas, have been left at the mercy of decadent public policies, without resources to maintain basic subsistence strategies and looking to the city as their only way out.

Delhi now has a population of 22 million, the second-largest urban agglomeration after Tokyo, and it is expected to reach 29 million by 2025.[1] Such numbers inevitably have an effect on the life of the city: greater consumption of industrial products by the middle classes and the elite, who aspire to follow western consumption patterns, lead to greater volumes of waste, especially plastic and paper.[2]

Without a formal waste management system to deal with the 10,000 tonnes of waste generated every day in Delhi, the authorities have declared a waste crisis [3] after seeing that the landfill sites where the city’s waste has been accumulating can no longer cope. Delhi’s three landfill sites (Bhalswa, Okhla, and Ghazipur) are technically full and are now forming mountains of waste within the city. In the eyes of the authorities, it is of little importance that waste pickers find materials here which can be traded, so that they can feed their families, and that they depend almost entirely on the city’s informal waste recycling system. The landfill sites are a problem and the waste pickers are not part of the solution.

To make matters worse, most of the waste taken to landfill sites non-segregated and it contains a substantial proportion of organic waste,[4] making these tips a source of methane, a greenhouse gas 25 times more powerful than CO2.[5] Although landfill sites are not among the major causes of climate change, their contribution is sufficient for international policies to have taken them into account.

Unfortunately, the main proposals for dealing with the issue of waste prefer to ignore the fact that fifteen million people live from informal recycling in the southern hemisphere, sometimes dealing with as much as 95% of the materials to be recycled, as in the case of Cairo, at no cost to the local authorities.[6] These are figures that would do credit to modern recycling systems in the Northern Hemisphere, which require substantial public investment to function. The proposals also disregard the fact that reducing waste, reusing and recycling are effective ways to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by preserving raw materials, saving energy and fossil fuels, as the IPCC recognised in its fourth report.[7] However, in countries like India, national subsidies for renewable energy are supported by the Clean Development Mechanism (CDM) under the Kyoto Protocol,[8] which treats waste incineration, even of recyclable material, as a way to generate renewable, clean, green energy. These projects deprive the waste pickers of the resources they need to subsist and they disappear once more. Meanwhile, materials that could be reused or made into compost are burnt, leaving all of us with a bit more pollution and a reduction in natural resources.

Who are the waste pickers?

In the absence of recycling systems operated by the government, waste pickers are the de facto recycling system in most cities in the Southern Hemisphere. About 1% of the world’s population are engaged in collecting, recycling, selecting, classifying, cleaning, packing and processing waste, and making new products from it and selling them.[9] In Delhi, for example, waste pickers repair low-energy light bulbs and resell them. Although the working and health conditions are deplorable, this is a survival strategy for the urban poor, who have few alternatives. This is no easy way of life: the context in which they work is generally hostile, with constant threats from the authorities, when they are not subject to abuse and extortion by the police and/or intermediate wholesalers in the informal waste trade chains.[10]

In spite of these difficulties, the collective organisation of waste pickers in India and in other countries such as Colombia, Brazil, Chile, South Africa, Uruguay and Costa Rica bears witness to their struggle to form cooperatives, obtain better equipment for collecting waste, negotiate direct access to sources of waste, and improve their health, safety and standard of living. Their stories are not just a source of inspiration because of their human values, they are also a lesson in how the environmentalism of the poor, the political space where the struggles of the workers interact with ecological principles,[11] generates answers to major social, economic and climate issues.

In Delhi there are around 150,000 waste pickers[12] grouped in various organisations such as AIKMM, All India Kachara Shramik Mahasangh, Green Flag, and Bal Vikas Dhara, which are campaigning for the legal recognition of this sector. After years working in the streets and on waste tips, the waste pickers reached an agreement with the local authorities, which recognised their right to collect waste from 50,000 homes. Going from door to door, they separate waste into two categories: recyclable (plastic, paper and metal) and the rest (inert and organic). Recyclable materials are sold to small traders before being taken to large recycling companies while non-recyclable materials are deposited at neighbourhood collection points from where they can be taken to landfill sites.

Thanks to these improvements, in 2008 it was recorded that their income increased, their children could start to go to school, and they were subject to fewer health risks and less police abuse, as they were now seen as legitimate service providers. Today the informal sector recycles about 15% of Delhi’s solid waste, i.e. about 1,500 of the 10,000 tonnes generated every day (approximately 10 kg per waste picker, per day)[13]. At an average price of 6 rupees per kg of recycled material, a waste picker can earn 60 rupees a day, equivalent to 1 euro.

Gopal and Shashi, father and son, who are both waste pickers, tell us about their daily routine:

We wake up every morning at four o’clock. We cycle down to our area and begin collecting from door to door. About eleven we leave the non-recyclable material at the neighbourhood collection point and go back to our community. When we get there my wife helps us to separate the recyclable material into different categories. Once a week we sell it to a trader. We don’t earn much but it feeds the family. We’re a peasant family, but in Bihar, the state we come from, rich people own all the land.

From privatisation to expropriation…

The problems of waste pickers in Delhi and other cities in India have worsened with the privatisation of waste management. As a rule, privatisation is synonymous with exclusion. Until a few years ago, the transport of waste to landfill sites was carried out by municipal trucks, but, since 2005, waste collection and transport have been progressively privatised. Today 80% of its transport is in the hands of five companies, and only 20% is in the hands of the municipality. There are also plans to extend privatisation to door-to-door collection, thus threatening the access of waste pickers to waste at neighbourhood collection points today and waste collected from people’s homes tomorrow.

This is Dhara’s account of her experience: I’ve been living in this collection centre for fifteen years. I’m a single mother and recycling waste has enabled me to bring up my children decently. Now these men come from the company and they tell me all this is theirs. They show me a piece of paper and tell me it’s a contract, but I can’t read. They ask me for money. What am I supposed to do?

…and incineration

The latest threat to waste pickers and recycling comes from waste incinerator technology (including gasification, pyrolosis and refuse-derived fuel (RDF)) and the plants to recover methane at landfill sites. In Delhi, the government has approved the Okhla-Timarpur plant, which is expected to start operations in July 2011, and two more are planned (Ghazipur and Narela-Bawana). The Okhla-Timarpur plant will process about 2,000 tonnes per day (of the 10,000 the city generates) and will produce 16 MW of power. Its financial viability is based on two types of subsidy: firstly, the prices of the electricity generated are subsidised as it is considered to be renewable energy; secondly, the plant’s developers hope it will be approved under the CDM, recognising it as the best way to reduce methane emissions from the landfill sites. It could then qualify for carbon credits to sell on the international market.

The inefficiency of the Timarpur-Okhla plant may be much more alarming and even its technical viability is questionable, as most of the waste used is organic and therefore has significant water content and is of low calorific value. To burn the waste, incinerators need a high proportion of paper, cardboard and plastic, which are very suitable for recycling. Without these materials and with a high water content, it is often impossible to burn solid urban waste in developing countries without additional fuel such as coal or diesel.[15] This happened in the case of another incinerator built in Timarpur, which had to discontinue operations after only a few days for this reason.[16]In fact, these technologies are sources of greenhouse gas emissions themselves. This is not only because the combustion process itself generates CO2, but because most of what is burnt (paper, food, wood, plastic, etc.) consists of materials that generate GHG emissions at all stages in their life cycle (extraction, transport, manufacture, consumption and disposal). Recycling brings greater benefits to the climate.

According to one study,[14] Delhi’s waste pickers reduce GHG emissions by 962,133 tonnes a year, while the massive, capital-intensive Okhla-Timarpur incinerator project would only bring about a reduction of 262,791 tonnes of CO2 equivalent, i.e. less than one third of what is achieved by the waste pickers (see chart). Burning biomass to produce energy does not look like the kind of energy efficiency policy needed to tackle climate change.

Title: Annual reduction in greenhouse gases from waste management in Delhi, India

Source: Chinta, Cooling Agents: An Examination of the Role of the Informal Recycling Sector in Mitigating Climate Change, 2009

The Timarpur-Okhla plant has attracted capital investment from Indian industrial heavyweights, who hope to recoup 37 million dollars via the sale of carbon credits. The proposed project affects large local conglomerates and public bodies that will be left with few resources and no incentive to invest in recycling or composting schemes. This disproportionate allocation of funds does not reflect climate priorities but the profitability of this technology for large multinational corporations, who are the main beneficiaries of the CDM.Moreover, as the plant is located 100 metres from a residential area and near three large hospitals, it is strongly opposed by the local inhabitants. Together with environmental groups like Toxics Watch Alliance, they are protesting about the impact of toxic and carcinogenic emissions on health: dioxins and furans, volatile heavy metal nanoparticles, nitrous oxide (N2O) and hydrochloric acid (HCl).[17]. Toxics Watch Alliance adds that 30% of the waste is transformed into toxic ash which would require special treatment that is not available in India. It is suspected that the plant will not even have an emissions monitoring system, as this could cost around 140 million dollars. The residents submitted their case to the Delhi Supreme Court but, after a long hearing with serious administrative irregularities, in which the municipal authorities managed to have local environmental impact reports and surveys ignored, in the end they only secured the intervention of the Ministry of Environment and Forests, which called for an independent enquiry, the impact of which is uncertain, given the advanced stage of building work on the plant and the amounts invested.

In short, this plant takes away a survival strategy for thousands of people, prevents materials from being recycled, generates more emissions, needs substantial public spending and pollutes the local environment. It is difficult to understand why there is such insistence on the scheme; it can only be explained by the myth of modern technology and powerful economic interests.

Alternatives and environmental justice

Fortunately there are alternatives to incineration, and the waste pickers have mobilised through their own organisations and as part of the AIW,[18] to resist both privatisation and incineration. As Shashi Bushan Pandit, Secretary-General of the All India Waste Workers Union (AIKMM), points out: We defend the importance of ensuring our access to waste because it represents a means of subsistence for us and because of the environmental benefits of our role in recycling materials. We ask for respect for the informal recycling sector and its legal recognition.

In other parts of India, especially Pune and Mumbai, waste pickers have succeeded in introducing systems for collecting and separating waste in which there are benefits for them, the residents and the municipality (although not for industrial corporations). Organic waste is being used for composting and in biogas plants instead of being sent to landfill sites, and these are good solutions from the viewpoints of waste management and climate change.[19] In line with this approach, zero waste strategies promote inclusive, accessible waste management locally and globally, prioritising its reduction, reuse and recycling to minimise its impact on health and the environment.[20]

It is not only absurd that at this stage in the ecological crisis recyclable materials should still be considered waste; there is no justification for not respecting those who recycle it and preventing them from working by expropriating what is not waste but recyclable resources. We need environmental justice now!

RESPECT FOR RECYCLERS! The Global Alliance for Recycling brings together recycling organisations and networks from Latin America, Asia and Africa, plus support groups and environmental associations, to provide socially inclusive solutions to combat climate change and manage waste. Since 2009, the Alliance has taken part in international negotiations on climate change and is working to gain recognition for the millions of recyclers in the world who are united and committed to the struggle for climate justice and against false solutions such as incineration. Further information: http://frontlineagainstclimatechange.inclusivecities.org/


[1] United Nations, Department of Economic and Social Affairs, World Urbanization Prospects. The 2009 Revision: Highlights, New York, 2010.

[2] S. Chandak, Trends in Solid Waste Management: Issues, Challenges and Opportunities, UNDP.

[4] UN Environment Programme: Waste and Climate Change: Global Trends and Strategy Framework, December 2010.

[5] IPCC, 2007: Summary for Policymakers. In: Climate Change 2007: The Physical Science Basis. Contribution of Working Group I to the Fourth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change of Climate Change, [Solomon, S., D. Qin, M. Manning, Z. Chen, M. Marquis, K.B. Averyt, M.Tignor and H.L. Miller (eds.)]. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, United Kingdom and New York, NY, USA, http://www.ipcc.ch/pdf/assessment-report/ar4/wg1/ar4-wg1-spm.pdf (accessed June 22, 2009).

[6] Drabinski, S. (2009), ‘Domestic waste management in Cairo – a case study’, Müll und Abfall 2/09, Erich Schmidt Verlag.

[7] Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (2007), Fourth Assessment Report, volume 2, p. 212.

[8] The Clean Development Mechanism creates and regulates a greenhouse gas emissions market among the countries of the north, which are obliged to cut their emissions, and the countries of the south, where projects that are supposed to reduce emissions are financed and carbon credits (CERs) are generated. See Opcions, No. 37, article on CDM.

[9] Martin Medina. Waste Pickers in Developing Countries: Challenges and Opportunities. http://siteresources.worldbank.org/INTUSWM/Resources/463617-1190232794490/MedinaWastePickers.pdf

[10] M. Samson, Refusing to be Cast Aside: Waste Pickers Organising Around the World. Published by Wiego, 2009. At: http://www.inclusivecities.org/refusing.html

[11] Joan Martínez Alier. El ecologismo de los pobres. Conflictos ambientales y lenguajes de valoración. Icaria Editorial, 2005. Antrazyt.

[12] Kaul, A Study of Ragpicker Children in Delhi, ILO, 2003.

[13] Figures compiled by Federico Demaria while he was carrying out field work in March 2011.

[14] Chintan (2009). Cooling Agents. An Analysis of Climate Change Mitigation by the Informal Recycling Sector in India.

[15] World Bank, Waste Management in China: Issues and Recommendations, East Asia Infrastructure Department, Urban Development Working Paper No. 9. May 2005

[16] N. Tangri y D.Shah, CDM Misadventures In Waste Management, Third World Network, June 2011.

[17] S. C. Rowat. ‘Incinerator toxic emissions: a brief summary of human health effects with a note on regulatory control’. Medical Hypothesis, Volume 52, Issue 5, May 1999, Pages 389-396. http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S030698778470675X

[18] Alliance of Indian Wastepickers, Livelihoods with Dignity, March 2010.

[19] ECO – Environmental Commissioner of Ontario, Meeting Responsibilities: Creating Opportunities. Annual GHG Progress Report, 2010.

[20] Neil Tangri. Respect for Recyclers. Protecting the Climate through Zero Waste. http://www.inclusivecities.org/pdfs/Respect_for_Recyclers_EN.pdf