Trash to Treasure: Women Entrepreneurs Help Pilot India’s First Citywide Recycling Program

As the world races headlong into the urban age, cities across developing countries are facing the significant challenges of governing increasingly complex urban systems and tackling higher rates of urban poverty. Where city governments have failed, social enterprises have increasingly taken the lead on forging new solutions and championing them into public policy. India has been a beacon of innovation in this field, pioneering solutions that span from mobile banking to low cost toilets.

Solid waste management sits at the nexus of these issues. This can be seen in Bangalore, India, where the city’s population of almost 8 million people produces about 4,000 tons of waste daily. An estimated 600 tons of this waste is recycled by about 20,000 informal waste pickers, nearly half of whom are women, mostly from lower castes and disadvantaged groups.

Working as individuals and small enterprises they retrieve recyclable materials from households, businesses, city streets and dump yards. They sort the materials, typically in back alleys or vacant lots, and sell them for small profits up the recycling chain. On average, a self-employed waste picker earns about 100 rupees, or $2, a day.

This informal sector forms the backbone of India’s nascent recycling economy. Their recovery and sale of recyclable materials creates “green jobs” downstream in the processing of these materials and reduces waste going to landfills, free of cost to the city. This, in turn, reduces greenhouse gas emissions.

However, the occupational hazards are many, including harassment from police who treat them as thieves, and the public in general who treat them as second-class citizens.  Then there are health hazards from exposure to dangerous materials that are slowly being introduced by India’s growing middle class, like electronics, CFL light bulbs, and diapers.

With funding from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the Caterpillar Foundation, Global Communities partnered with some of Bangalore’s most inspiring social entrepreneurs to formalize recycling systems in the city and improve the livelihoods of informal waste collectors. Social enterprises like Sahaas, Waste Wise, Daily Dump, Full Circle, and AIW partnered with us to create practical solutions based on our collective view that ‘nothing is waste’. Together we partnered with an even broader ecosystem of NGOs, citizen interest committees, government agencies, businesses, neighborhood associations, and most importantly, thousands of informal waste collectors that animate the recycling system every day.

We called the program Trash to Treasure because it capitalized on the value of recyclables to help pay for their clean up. The business model for our recycling centers is simple. The city provides the land and building costs, Global Communities uses grant money to kick-start the operations of the centers, and local NGOs or social enterprises manage the operations of each center. They hire and pay the waste pickers’ salaries by two fees. One is a monthly fee from households for collecting waste and the other is from selling recyclables and composted organic waste to larger recyclers.

We piloted seven recycling centers, which have a capacity to recycle 50 tons of waste per month. Based on the success of these centers, Bangalore’s municipal government is now rolling out the program by constructing one center in each of the 198 wards of the city, the first of its kind in India.

The neighborhood recycling centers legitimize an otherwise marginalized profession. Instead of relegating these activities to back alleys, the centers provide formally sanctioned space where economies of scale can be achieved in segregating, storing and selling recyclables. These centers also keep waste pickers safe because equipment, tools and appropriate clothing is provided.

We also sought to address the legitimacy of the informal collectors working independently across the city by addressing their “identity.” To do this, we helped the Bangalore city government issue identity cards to over 6,000 waste pickers and scrap dealers across the city. These ID cards authorize their legal right to work in the city. This was the first city in India to do this. These cards also enable workers to access additional government services like health care.  It sanctions their livelihood.

We then supported the formation of an association representing waste collectors in the city called Hasirudala (“green force”).  More than 2,500 individuals have joined the association and now have a collective voice of their own to advocate for their concerns. Through this association, we are now able to provide vocational and life skills training. We are also able to organize self help groups amongst women, so they can save, pool and lend their money to each other.

The entire Trash to Treasure program has been instrumental in helping this informal sector create more economically productive relationships that improve their position in the city, away from its fringes.

Empowering the Urban Poor: A DIY Approach to Future-Proofing Cities

America has a great legacy of institutions that foster the “do it yourself” ethic from an early age, from the Boy Scouts to Popular Mechanics. In international development, this “DIY” attitude is more important than ever – and it begins with empowering the most vulnerable members of society.

Currently, one billion people around the world live in urban slums, and according to the United Nations, that number is expected to increase to two billion by 2030. These are the same people who find themselves at the front lines of climatic shocks – from droughts to intensified storms – with little protection.

It’s unfair, to be sure. According to the U.N., the 100 countries most vulnerable to climate change contribute the least to total global greenhouse gas emissions. But instead of pitying the people who are hurt most, we should empower them to make change. Because while reversing urbanization or climate change may be impossible, increasing the resilience of cities’ physical, social, and economic fabric is not.

Through my work in India for CHF International, I saw firsthand how the urban poor lean into challenges together, and invest in bettering their own communities as a cohesive unit. In 2007, supported by a grant from the Gates Foundation, we used this community-centric approach in one of India’s largest cities to make lasting improvements to the resilience of their most vulnerable slum populations:

Near Mumbai, the city of Pune is the eighth largest metropolis in India with a population of about five million people – and 1 million of them live in slums. By 2025, the population of the Pune-Mumbai “mega region” is expected to hit nearly 50 million people.

Situated at the confluence of three rivers, Pune has experienced many floods over the last several decades, including an historic major dam failure in 1961. Climate change is likely to increase the frequency of these floods. And slum dwellers in the region face additional challenges: 44 percent of them have sheet roofs containing asbestos, and thousands of them have no access to sanitation facilities. Like so many slum communities around the world, the poorest of the poor in Pune are living in hazard-prone areas, without rights to their land, with little savings, and without identity.

We wanted that to change. And it did.

When the central government of India made funding available to major cities in the country, including Pune, to undertake slum-upgrading projects, we helped empower slum dwellers to create better housing solutions. We did this in close partnership with city governments and locally based NGOs.

For example, instead of evicting, demolishing and rebuilding housing more quickly in the city outskirts, we helped residents develop housing on the same sites where residents had established their lives and livelihoods. We also worked with a collective of slum-based women’s savings groups chosen to administer a city contract to rebuild 700 houses across these slums. Working directly with a team of architects, the slum residents developed housing designs and neighborhood amenities like open spaces.

The project left more than just new houses. It left a legacy of community dialogue, debate, engagement, and empowerment.

We also helped Pune implement a program that supports both local governments and their urban poor in exploring the conditions of their communities in order to take action – a skill that will be increasingly needed in the face of climate change.

We engaged 5,000 volunteer slum dwellers to survey the socio-economic conditions of their peers across the city. Entering this information into a Geographic Information System (GIS) that we developed with the local government, we then gave back the data to community volunteers and taught them how to organize neighborhood action plans supported by their findings.

In two years, having mobilized their own resources and those of the local government, 130 slum communities in Pune implemented projects that they wanted, and on their terms. The improvements included a solid waste management program, better water connections, sanitation access, and the development of renewable energy sources.

The urbanization-fueled challenges faced by vulnerable communities in Pune are similar to those in many other mega-cities around the world. As global citizens, we are faced with a choice: to plan for the poor in future-proofing these cities, or to plan with them.

In fostering the DIY spirit that Americans know so well, I choose the latter. The urban poor are incredibly resourceful, with their own resources, networks, and demonstrated capacity to save and invest in the betterment of their cities. We just need to give them the chance.