Mapping Bangalore's waste

Carlin Carr, Bangalore Community Manager
Bangalore, 10 March 2015

The southern Indian city of Bangalore has risen to global prominence as an IT mecca. New industry has transformed the city over the last two decades, bringing not only new-found wealth but a not-so-glittery issue as well: trash, and lots of it. The digital city produces 4,000 tonnes of trash every day, and 90 percent goes straight to already overburdened landfills. Much of the waste could be recycled by the army of informal "green workers" in the city, but the mixing at the landfill degrades the trash's value on the scrap dealer market. The result is that waste pickers — as the informal recyclers are known — sort through waste in unhygienic conditions and bring home a meager income.

But a new website and database, I Got Garbage (IGG), is harnessing the power of technology and data collection to change how trash is tracked, mapped, and handled in the city. Founded by the technology firm Mindtree, IGG transforms waste pickers into waste managers by helping them to access an online marketplace. Households, apartments, and businesses can connect with waste managers to arrange trash collection. The goal is to engage the urban community in solving the issue of trash while bringing greater predictability and dignity to the waste pickers' work.

Bangalore has recognized that the city's trash problem is reeling out of control. In 2012, the Karnataka High Court issued a progressive mandate for households to segregate waste at source. While the ruling was welcomed by environmentalists and social activists, there has been little enforcement. Households also hesitate to separate garbage that many believe gets combined together upon collection. IGG provides its nearly 7,000 registered households the opportunity to hand their refuse directly over to waste managers, ensuring proper handling of the waste. On the other side, the connection to households helps the waste managers access better and more trash, thereby increasing their ability to earn more on the scrap dealer market.

Most importantly, however, IGG has been mapping scrap dealers across Bangalore so that waste managers have better knowledge of where to take their recyclables. IGG surveyors collect data on handheld tablets, including the weighing capacity of the scrap dealer's scales, the amounts and types of scraps the small business deals in, and the location of the shop. The goal is to provide waste managers with smart phones to be able to access the data and information on the spot. The mapping increases the waste managers' understanding of where the trash is coming from and where it can go to — information that is powerful for every waste picker but also to municipalities across the country.

IGG's technology has the ability to transform waste management throughout India. The measurement of success will be an obvious one: are Indian cities visibly cleaner? But its potential goes beyond beautification. The international organization Women in Informal Employment Globalizing and Organizing (WIEGO), which works on waste picker issues around the world, says that the informal recyclers help improve public health and sanitation by collecting garbage from areas the municipal collection doesn't cover — a key benefit that often goes overlooked. But the real achievement will come when the informal workforce making cities greener becomes a valid part of the process. And, most importantly, they have the opportunity to go about their work each day with more dignity and recognition — a not-so-unattainable benchmark for one of the most important jobs in urban India today.

Photo credit: uusc4all

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