Delhi's informal waste recyclers reduce ill effects of climate change

Mukta Naik, Delhi Community Manager
Delhi, 21 December 2015

In India, cities produce staggering amounts of waste—Delhi alone needs to deal with over 9200 metric tonnes of solid waste a year—and spend anywhere between 10-50 percent of their municipal budgets managing it. Much of this waste ends up in landfills that emit greenhouse gases over years to come and waste-to-energy plants that are more often than not, inefficient and polluting. Instead, Delhi would benefit substantially from waste management strategies that focus on recycling and composting. In fact, effective waste management is a key element in India’s strategy of reducing carbon emissions while keeping economic growth on track, a delicate balancing act that has dominated climate talks starting with the Earth Summit in Rio in 1992 and carrying onto the recently concluded COP21 discussions in Paris.

This is where informal sector waste recyclers come in. Delhi has over 100,000 waste workers who collect, sort, and transport waste free of cost with the objective of recovering and selling recyclable materials. A study Chintan conducted in 2009 found that the recycling efforts of Delhi’s informal waste workers reduced emissions by an estimated 962,133 tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalents per year. That’s like taking 176,215 passenger vehicles off the road, a particularly evocative comparison at a time when Delhi is struggling with a crisis in terms of air quality and resultant conditions of poor health among its citizens.

These savings come at no cost to the government, yet the system doesn’t formally recognize or credit informal sector recyclers who are unable to improve efficiencies and capacities, or increase their potential to earn. Chintan recognized this and as early as in 2002, began to work with a Delhi-based collective of waste recyclers that comprised waste pickers, doorstep waste collectors, small buyers, small junk dealers, and other types of recyclers. With Chintan’s support, this collective of about 12,000 adult workers was registered by the name Safai Sena or an Army of Cleaners in 2009. Safai Sena has worked hard for informal waste workers to be acknowledged as important urban actors by the state, and members dream of upgrading their work to respectable, safe, and recognized “green” jobs. A similar process of extensive research and cooperation resulted in the creation of 4R, an association of electronic waste recyclers.

Besides being an effective advocacy partner of informal waste recyclers, Chintan’s close involvement with policymaking has resulted in a few important wins. For instance, new e-waste legislation in Delhi, the E-Waste (Management and Handling) Rules, 2011, provides for local kabaris to handle e-waste if they formalize through an association or company and take requisite permissions. A 10-30 percent gain in the incomes of wastepickers trained in dealing with e-waste has been an added benefit.

Global recognition for this powerful narrative of arresting climate change through empowering the informal sector to handle e-waste came at COP21 in Paris, where 35-year old wastepicker Mohammad Khokhan Hamid of Safai Sena received the UN Climate Solutions Award, and Chintan bagged the 2015 United Nations Momentum for Change Award in the Urban Poor category. “Over the past four years, we have diverted 25 tonnes of electronic waste for recycling instead of going straight into the landfills,” said Chitra Mukherjee, Head of Programmes at Chintan as she accepted the award in Paris, even as she emphasized the need for consumption patterns to shift from new to recycled products. The momentum of policy advocacy and participatory change created by organizations like Safai Sena and Chintan must continue if the world is to achieve its sustainability targets.

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