Plastic pollution is a global problem with no single solution. As The Pew Charitable Trusts’ 2020 report “Breaking the Plastic Wave” found, everyone from producers to consumers could reduce the amount of plastic entering the ocean by 80 per cent by 2040 using existing solutions.
The report also found that waste pickers—people who collect, sort and recycle materials as part of the informal recycling sector—are responsible for approximately 60 per cent of plastic recycling globally. But their role is largely unrecognized, and they’re exposed to unsafe conditions and significant health risks.
Kashtakari Panchayat, an organization in Pune, India, that supports waste pickers and their families, worked with Pew to use our Breaking the Plastic Wave Pathways Tool (“Pathways”) to assess different approaches to reducing plastic pollution in the city. As part of the project, Kashtakari Panchayat last year released a report, “What We Waste: Household Waste Generation and Recovery by Waste Pickers in Pune,” providing a detailed look into the waste system in Pune.
This interview with Lubna Anantakrishnan, a managing trustee at Kashtakari Panchayat, has been edited for length and clarity.
How urgent is the plastic pollution problem in Pune, and in India generally?
The plastic pollution crisis is situated within an environmental movement as well as a waste management movement, both of which are gaining a lot of traction in India.
As part of the government’s Clean India initiative, which dates back to 2014, cities are being pushed to improve data on their waste management systems, which has brought a lot of attention to waste management in general.
And of course, there’s naturally a growing focus on plastic waste because it’s one of the more challenging wastes to handle. It’s one of the newer wastes too; it wasn’t that prevalent 20 or 30 years ago, and now about 50 per cent of the waste that’s being produced in Pune is plastic waste.
The more plastic waste you have lying in hot, huge landfills, the more scope there is for fires, which are toxic and dangerous to the people in the vicinity.
So cities are focusing on improving their ability to manage plastic waste, innovate handling of plastic waste, and there’s growing attention being paid to how plastic producers in India can be held accountable for the waste and data. Starting next year, plastic producers in India will need to bear the cost of picking up, collecting, sorting and recycling (or otherwise handling) the plastic waste they produce.
How does your organization fit within the plastic waste landscape in India?
Kashtakari Panchayat works to strengthen the lives and livelihoods of waste pickers, who not only contribute to recycling but also, in a sense, subsidize the municipal waste collection services through their activities. In Pune, waste pickers are largely women from the lower caste—meaning that they’ve faced years of marginalization that’s pushed them into an occupation that’s very, very difficult. They’re self-employed entrepreneurs, and their primary earnings are from the sale of scrap. That means they get no social protections or benefits, and no guaranteed minimum income. The harassment they face from citizens and law enforcement has gone down in Pune in recent years, but that’s not the case for waste pickers in other parts of the country.
Because of a very strong labour movement and because in Pune they’re fairly well organized, about 4,000 local waste pickers have formed a cooperative called SWaCH, which is now part of the waste management system in Pune. But right now, waste pickers’ access to waste is being threatened in a big way.
So their livelihoods are at risk?
When there was no money in waste management, when there was no dignity in the work or support for the work and strong caste-based discrimination for the occupation, these highly marginalized individuals got pushed into waste picking to survive. Now, with the strong national and international discourse on sustainable waste management, and particularly on plastic waste management, there is a huge interest in waste. Private players want to gain control over the recyclable parts of waste or to win massive contracts to set up “technologies” like waste-to-energy, advanced recycling and chemical recycling—which municipalities will end up subsidizing until those facilities shut down. And waste pickers do not have the bargaining power to compete with these kinds of private entities.
All this means that instead of bringing attention, recognition and tangible support and improvements to the lives of people who have been holding up the recycling sector for decades, what we are doing is setting up an incentive structure that will dispossess them of their livelihoods.
How has Kashtakari Panchayat responded to that threat?
What we at KP attempt to do is bring the contribution of the waste pickers into the spotlight, not just through stories but also through hard evidence of their contribution to recycling. We also work to directly provide support to this community to strengthen their livelihoods and the overall welfare of waste pickers and their families. We work on initiatives that support waste pickers to enhance and increase the levels of recycling by setting up systems to handle typically non-recycled materials, provide decentralized and supportive infrastructure to encourage maximum source segregation, and more.
Apart from this, we do several other things: We provide emergency support for waste pickers’ health and for the education of their children. If they’re eligible for government benefits, we help them fill out the forms. We help them bargain with their scrap dealers for better terms. We’re also looking at supporting waste pickers to potentially set up recycling units themselves. One thing we found through our work with Pew is a lack of transparency in terms of what recycling actually costs, what costs are truly borne and which remain hidden. This is an area of work in the future for us.
Waste pickers have developed an expertise in different materials. Can you tell us more about that?
Waste pickers need to be able to look at any object around them, figure out what it’s made of and then decide how best it should be handled, which is no easy thing. It’s something they’ve learned through sheer trial and error and ingenuity, using methods like holding something up to the sun to gauge its opacity, or banging it on the ground and scrunching it to see what sound it makes. Different polymers of clear plastic sound different; they tear differently. The expertise waste pickers have is invaluable.
You can’t displace waste pickers without paying a price for it and without any rehabilitation strategy for them. You need to create a just transition into the future of waste management.
What are some of the barriers to this?
Everyone likes the idea of recycling, right? But that entails bringing in the waste and sorting it into so many different categories, which means you need a space to be able to do that, and you then need a space to be able to store the material until you’re ready to sell it. Most citizens would be uncomfortable with waste pickers sorting outside their places of residence. The problem there is that we’re so much more obsessed with visual cleanliness than with what happens to our waste; that can lead to a worse outcome in how waste is handled, just because we want our streets to look clean.
What other important stakeholders, in addition to waste pickers, are you working with in this process?
There’s definitely a multitude of stakeholders in the waste management sector now. We worked closely with the local government, which very graciously shared its data and allowed us access to some of its facilities and to ask questions; that gave us insight into how the waste is handled. We also looked at how aggregators, scrap dealers and recyclers are handling waste—all of whom are very critical stakeholders as we look at the privatization of waste management.
What about the data that was collected and used in the Pathways tool to analyze the plastics system in Pune? Has anything useful come from that?
Pathways has helped us get a much clearer picture of how waste is handled within the city. That’s in addition to our close collaboration with the local government. And I think that’s going to continue: We’ll look at data, ask questions and actually improve the kind of data that we’re collecting for the city.
It’s been very useful to work with not only the local government but also with other stakeholders to create a data-sharing culture in a space where good data is very difficult to come by. The whole point is to make sure that systems are set up to manage plastic, and to manage waste in general, that are environmentally and socially sound.
Not just in Pune, but at a country level as well?
Yes, we definitely hope so. We want our model to be replicable in practice, not just in theory.
How did you end up doing this work?
I didn’t actively choose to come into this field. But I got a small taste of it and got completely sucked in. Working with waste pickers is supremely interesting; the waste pickers in Pune that I’ve had the privilege of interacting with are super inspirational and knowledgeable. It’s just a pleasure to work with them.
And in the end, it’s the people that are important.
Yes. The one message I’d like to get out far and wide is that when you think about recycling and think about solving the plastic crisis, you need to think about what happens to the people in recycling today. When you think about polluters paying, are you thinking about what they’re paying for and who they’re paying? When you talk about eliminating plastic sometime in the future, do the benefits go to the people engaged in this work? Any system that doesn’t account for these people is perhaps an environmentally better outcome, but it’s depriving people of their livelihoods. It’s not just a materials crisis. There are livelihoods and people involved—people who’ve been marginalized and pushed into this livelihood. Failing to consider them is actively unjust.