Can Mumbai's waste pickers help India meet the SDGs?

Carlin Carr, Mumbai Community Manager
Mumbai, 11 September 2015

Waste pickers are among urban India's poorest residents and most invisible workers, yet this "green army" plays an important role in managing a growing trash issue across urban India – and the developing world. Increasingly, waste management innovations have focused on connecting with waste pickers to mine their deep knowledge of recycling while connecting them to global "green" efforts to find more efficient, effective, and humane ways to deal with trash matters.

In Mumbai, a city that generates 6,500 tons of waste every day, Sampurn(e)arth believes that the city's massive dumping ground, which the organization says is the largest in Asia, is not only environmentally destructive but also exploitative, both to the people who toil there and to the planet. The current process, says Sampurn(e)arth, involves "extraction, production, consumption and dumping or landfilling, resulting in green house gas emissions, ground water pollution and an ever-increasing strain on natural resource."

The Mumbai-based social enterprise believes there is a better way – and thinks it has found the solution. Sampurn(e)arth has developed award-winning end-to-end decentralized waste management solutions tailored to meet the needs of various locations and situations – from apartment blocks to corporations to schools and even to townships. The goal is simple: zero waste. Getting there, though, requires strategic collaboration among the location, local waste pickers and residents.

Sampurn(e)arth starts their step-by-step process of developing a localized solution by conducting a waste audit. The audits take anywhere from one to seven days, and map the pattern of waste generation and the existing waste management system. The information gathered from the detailed audit develops into a report with recommended solutions for both wet waste and dry waste.

Once the audit is complete, a design team from Sampurn(e)arth develops a waste management system to suit the specific circumstances. For example, for a housing society that produces less than 200 kgs of biodegradable or wet waste per day, then the team would suggest a composting unit. If the amount is over 200 kgs, then the team might suggest installing a biogas plant. "The system is designed keeping in mind the site-specific conditions, such as space, garden area, scope for usage of biogas," says Sampurn(e)arth, which collects dry waste with its own vehicles on a regular basis.

In order to ensure sustainability of the system, Sampurn(e)arth needs on-the-ground assistance from those who deal directly with the city's trash: the waste pickers themselves. The organization has partnered with one of Mumbai's most well-established NGOs supporting women waste pickers, Stree Mukti Sangathana. About 3 000 waste-pickers are associated with Stree Mukti Sangathana in the form of self-help groups and co-operatives. Although the NGO is nearly 40 years old, it was only more recently, in 1999, that it started focusing on waste management with its waste pickers. It provides training and awareness programs related to waste as well as health initiatives.

In 2014, Sampurn(e)arth won the Global Social Venture Competition organized by the Haas School of Business at the University of California. This and other accolades speak not just to the innovativeness of the model but also to its unique ability to both tackle poverty issues as well as address serious environmental and health concerns – both areas of focused concern for the new Sustainable Development Goals.

Photo: Tawheed Manzoor.

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