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Messing around with waste

By Poornima Chikarmane and Anjor Bhaskar

Solid waste management accounts for over 50% of overall municipal budgets and manpower, but municipal authorities collect only 50% of the waste and recycle a negligible 5%. Technology and privatisation are the solutions being proposed everywhere. But public-private partnerships are turning out to be more about using public money for private profit. Is integration of informal sector wastepickers into the management of domestic and commercial municipal waste the solution?

Bangalore, Chennai, Pune, Nagpur, Ropar, Tiruvananthapuram, Erode, Allahabad, Ludhiana, Ranchi, Jaipur, Mumbai and Gurgaon have all been in the news for problems related to solid waste management. This article reflects on some of the issues surrounding the mess around municipal solid waste management. The authors take reduction, re-use, recovery and recycling of materials as their focal point, unlike conventional municipal solid waste management in India. Municipal governments charged with the responsibility of 'public cleansing' have never acknowledged the existence of the informal waste sector, much less sought complementarity with it. This disconnect exacerbates the complexities that are involved in managing the detritus generated by cities in an era of consumerism, globalisation and the privatisation and corporatisation of waste management. The authors also briefly present the experience of the SWaCH wastepickers cooperative that, till date, is the country's oldest and largest attempt to reconcile formal and informal waste managers through the integration of wastepickers in the management of domestic and commercial municipal waste.

Municipal solid waste management

An estimated 115,000 MT of solid waste are generated every day in India, increasing every year by 5%. Almost three-fourths of the total waste (83,378 MT) is accounted for by seven mega cities, 38 metro cities, and 388 Class I cities (2005). Conventional modes of municipal solid waste management (MSWM) required waste to be collected, transported and dumped on unsuspecting villages by municipal governments as part of their constitutional obligations. City governments spend between Rs 500 and Rs 1,500 per tonne on solid waste collection, transportation, treatment and disposal. However, the expenditure is unevenly distributed, with waste collection accounting for about 60-70% of the expenditure being spent on collection, the rest being on transportation with hardly any expenditure on waste treatment and disposal (DEA, GOI, 2009). MSWM accounts for over 50% of overall municipal budgets and manpower. Yet, municipal authorities are unable to collect more than 50% and to recycle a negligible 5% of the total waste generated in their jurisdictions. The informal sector does most of the recycling, nearly 15% of the total waste generated (NIUA, 2005). Uncollected and non-recyclable waste causes not only visual pollution but also invisible air pollution and groundwater pollution. There is thus a massive 'gap' between the requirement of cities, or demand for waste management, and its supply by ULBs. The past 20 years have seen changes, some driven by law and policy and others by economic factors. Only those considered to be the most significant are referred to here.

Regulatory changes

The Government of India enacted the Municipal Solid Waste Management and Handling Rules in 2000, in response to directives from the Supreme Court of India that was hearing a public interest litigation on the subject. The rules, among other things, required municipalities to promote source segregation of waste; organise door-to-door collection of waste, divert all recyclables to recycling and organic waste from landfills into processing, leaving only non-recyclables to be landfilled. In 2004, only 38% of urban local bodies had started primary collection, while 9% had some processing facilities (Asnani 2004). Most municipalities in the country still do not comply with these rules, nine years after the deadline prescribed by the court. Some states like Maharashtra have enacted separate legislations such as the Maharashtra Non-Biodegradable Garbage Control Act, 2006.

Changes in financing

The Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission (JNNURM) initiated by the Government of India in 2005, with the twin broad objectives of upgrading urban infrastructure and improving basic service-provision in cities with million-plus populations, shaped many of the changes taking place in solid waste management. Under JNNURM, costs of urban renewal are to be shared between central, state and local governments. Grants were conditional upon the preparation of inclusive city development plans and a set of mandatory and discretionary reforms to be undertaken by local and state governments. Relevant to the subject at hand, levy of user fees for services and full-cost recovery within a period of seven years, enactment of community participation legislation, and earmarking of budgets for provision of basic services to the poor were some of the mandatory reforms. Encouraging private-public partnership was among the optional reforms.

Typically, the expenditure on solid waste management is met from the sanitation tax collected as a component of property tax paid by city residents. A study of six major cities carried out in 2009 revealed that expenditure on solid waste management as a proportion of property tax amounted to a staggering 238% in the case of Bhopal, and between 30-125% in the case of other cities. Their finding -- that in the case of SWM, expenditure on O&M is more in comparison with expenditure on capital assets -- is consistent with that of the High-Powered Expert Committee Report on Indian Urban Infrastructure and Services that puts the total capital expenditure requirement for solid waste management at a staggering Rs 485,820 million and O&M requirement at Rs 27,000 trillion (55,576 times!) (GOI 2011)

Municipalities have been permitted to issue tax-free municipal bonds by GOI. Escalation of taxes for residents is not politically palatable. Taxing of industry or extended producer responsibility (EPR) that produces goods that add to waste on account of packaging and planned obsolescence is not high up on the agenda. That leaves the door wide open for municipalities to exercise their preference for inviting private players through what are referred to as private-public partnerships.

Collective action by city residents

Many litigations and agitations on the issue of solid waste management centre around landfills. They are led by villagers whose lands and livelihoods have quite literally been buried by indiscriminate garbage dumping and landfilling. No longer willing to stand by mutely, they have organised to resist the takeover of their lands and to corner ill-prepared municipal governments. Bitter struggles and blockades against dumping have been waged most recently by the landfill-affected in Thiruvananthapuram, Hyderabad, Pune, Chennai and Bangalore.

Another kind of landfill-displaced group is that of the wastepickers, who have been dispossessed by the privatisation of landfills that used to enable them access to recyclables.

Technology and the business of waste management

Technology is often seen as the panacea for all ills and so it is in the case of municipal solid waste, where a surfeit of companies peddle all manner of equipment for transporting, segregating, sorting, shredding and processing solid waste. There is a buzz around waste-to-energy, with expensive incineration-based technologies such as refuse-derived fuel (RDF), gasification and pyrolysis entering the Indian market. Composting and bio-methanation are their less preferred cousins.

Corporate interest in the business of solid waste management became evident during the past few years as privatisation opened up the sector. Large corporate players such as Ramky, Anthony, Hanjer, ITC WOW, and SPML entered the arena along with multinationals like Veolia and Rochem as well as smaller local players. Industry associations like the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry (FICCI) and Confederation of Indian Industry (CII) have shown special enthusiasm by organising events around waste management. The World Bank, JICA, ADB, GIZ, CGI and others are heavily invested in the sector.

Industry and the state administration tend to favour techno-managerial solutions that have serious implications for the informal waste sector. Apart from the environmental effects of burning waste, there is serious threat to the recycling value chain. The informal waste sector is ill-equipped to compete with formal enterprises that are managing to privatise the waste commons, in a manner of speaking. The small contractor-led contracts of the early years of privatisation have given way to large integrated multi-year contracts that incorporate collection, transport and processing and the rights to earn revenue from tipping fees payable by the municipal government, sale of recyclables and processed waste products, as also carbon credits.

Contribution of the informal waste sector

The recycling pyramid is constructed on the labour and enterprise of an estimated 1% of the total urban population in developing countries. The number of workers engaged in such activities in India would be in the region of 3.26 million, with the bulk comprising wastepickers and other collectors who occupy lower levels of the pyramid. Even while accounting for regional differences, labour in the waste sector is segmented. Low entry barriers draw large numbers of women, resource-poor scheduled castes, tribes, minorities and new migrants into the sector (Huysman 1998, Chikarmane et al2001). Informal waste work offers an opportunity to climb the economic ladder and create a space in which people do not need to worry about their position in the caste and social hierarchy. Informal waste workers have acquired skills to perform a task few others would care to perform. However, economic imperatives and a growing awareness of the economic potential of the scrap trade are breaking caste barriers as people cutting across socio-economic profiles try to enter the sector, while those already engaged in it try to defend their preserve, against competition (Gill 2009).

Contribution to materials recovery

Recyclable materials constitute between 17.5% of municipal solid waste and the informal sector retrieves 56% of that (Annepu 2012). Most of the recyclable materials collected and handled by the informal waste sector fall within the broad categories of paper, plastic, metal, glass and rags. For the purposes of this article, the authors look at the consumption and recycling of just two commodities -- paper and plastics.

Paper (India)

  • The import of waste paper has increased from 5.1 million USD in 1980 to 1 billion USD in 2011.
  • India imports around 4.0 million tonnes of waste paper annually, which is about 57% of its requirements.
  • Post-consumer paper or waste paper is an important renewable raw material for the paper industry.
  • 3 million tonnes recovered annually reduces imports.
  • The recycling process offers an opportunity for the generation of additional income and employment.
  • 95% of waste paper collection is carried out by the informal sector.
  • Estimated that recycling 1 tonne of waste paper results in a saving of 70% of raw material, 60% of coal, 43% of energy and 70% of water, as compared to making virgin paper from wood.
  • According to some estimates, 1 tonne of recycled paper saves approximately 17 trees, 2.5 barrels of oil, 4,100 kilowatt hours of electricity, four cubic metres of landfill and 31,780 litres of water.

(DIPP 2011)

The Indian paper industry uses wood, agricultural residue and waste paper as raw material. In the early 1970s, the share of waste paper used as raw material was only 7%, whereas now it constitutes the major raw material base for the paper industry, with a 47% share in total production (DIPP 2011).
The Working Group Report for the Pulp and Paper Industry XII Five-Year Plan calls for increasing the present indigenous paper recovery rate from 27% to 50% through development of models by the municipality with the involvement of private operators and industry.

Some of the stated aims of the policy resolution for petrochemicals are to increase domestic demand and per capita consumption of plastics and synthetic fibres and to achieve sustainable growth in the petrochemical sector through innovative methods of plastic waste management,
recycling and development of bio-photo-degradable polymers and plastics (GOI 2007).

Plastic (India)

  • Per capita consumption in India: 5.8 kg.
  • Between 2000-01 and 2009-10, the demand for plastic raw material more than doubled from 3.3 million metric tonnes to 6.8 million metric tonnes.
  • Plastic processing capacity more than doubled from ~8.2 MMT in 2001-02 to ~19 MMT in 2009-10.
  • Number of organised recycling units: 3,500
  • Number of unorganised recycling units: 4,000
  • Major types of plastics recycled: PE, PP, PVC, PET, PS, ABS and PMMA.
  • Manpower directly involved in plastics recycling: around 600,000.
  • Manpower indirectly involved in plastics recycling: around 1,000,000.
  • Quantum of plastics recycled per annum: 3.6 million metric tonnes.
  • Estimated investment in indigenous plant and machinery for recycling industries (mostly Tier I): about Rs 150.00 crore.

(CIPET 2011)

The documents referred to in this section are government publications. They not only acknowledge the presence of the informal sector but indicate the scale of its contribution as well. Yet the discussion paper that has purportedly been prepared by the Department of Industrial Policy and Promotion (DIPP) favours large businesses that seek to corporatise the sector and supplant the robust enterprise-driven materials collection and trade rather than to strengthen it. What is often overlooked intentionally or otherwise is the fact that the informal sector is already the private sector. So when the PPP in India paper calls for private sector participation it is in fact calling for the participation of organised industry and corporate bodies. The authors by no means suggest that the waste informal sector is disorganised, because there is evidence from studies that establish that it is highly structured and organised and survives without any government support in highly competitive markets (Chikarmane et al 2001, Gill 2010). Investment in the informal waste sector is likely to yield benefits in upgrading livelihoods, worker safety and employment-generation, apart from the obvious advantages of building on the foundation of something that already exists.

Contribution to the environment and the municipal government

The informal waste sector manages recyclables which constitute about 15% of the total waste generated, at no cost to the municipal government. In fact, the sector actually subsidises the cost of collection and transport by recovering and diverting recyclable materials into recycling much before the waste journeys to the landfill. Consequently, fuel is saved, as are the environmental costs of mixed waste dumping at landfills and the resultant soil, water and air pollution. The costs of extraction of often non-renewable virgin materials are avoided as well through effective materials recovery and recycling.


There is a good deal of doublespeak and inherent contradiction in policy and practice and a frightening absence of coherence between policies of different government ministries and departments. While most government policy documents recognise the contribution of the informal waste sector and the need to promote it (see Chikarmane 2012), actual action of governments at all levels works to displace it. A recent study by Chintan ('Failing the Grade' 2012) assesses the failings of a number of cities and the doublespeak between policy and action when it comes to integration. The task of integration is left to the goodwill of the private corporate sector. The past decade has established that privatisation of urban basic services is not the magic bullet solution that it is made out to be. In a recent article, environmental activist Sunita Narain refers to PPP as 'public money private profit' because little private investment actually comes in, private players able unable to provide good services, and yet profits accrue to them. "The public system takes a further hit and the private system does not benefit. Development does not happen. What happens is loot in the name of growth." This applies to the solid waste management scenario as much as it does to water, which the article is about. The Government of India and well as state and municipal governments are treading the path of the economically developed world in the matter of managing urban solid waste. Centralised, capital- and technology-driven waste management will spell the death of the informal waste recycling sector. India has a rich history of re-use and recovery which should, in fact, be strengthened by promoting source segregation of waste; registration, integration and upgradation of wastepickers and itinerant waste buyers; reserving space for flea markets, junk markets and scrap materials markets; decentralised composting and bio-methanation and other eco-friendly options.

SWaCH: Candle in the wind?

SWaCH Seva Sahakari Sansthais an autonomous enterprise of wastepickers that provides front end waste management solutions to the residents of Pune. It is a pro-poor partnership that is authorised to provide door-to-door waste collection and waste management services by the Pune Municipal Corporation. SWaCH is promoted by Kagad Kach Patra Kashtakari Panchayat (KKPKP) that organised over 8,000 wastepickers to work with dignity and created a sustainable decentralised waste management model in the country. The MOU between SWaCH and the PMC extends for a period of five years, from 2008-2013. According to the terms of the MOU, SWaCH members are permitted to recover user fees from service users. PMC provides the infrastructure, including collection equipment. There was a two-year pilot that preceded SWaCH.
The approach at SWaCH is driven by a hierarchical chain of 'recycling points', from door-to-door collection of domestic segregated waste to a chain of scrap shops; also e-waste collection and organic waste processing units that ensure recycling and reprocessing.

Salient features of the PMC-SWaCH partnership in Pune city
Memorandum of Understanding (MOU): Signed in October 2008
Nature of arrangement: Pro-poor partnership
Main tasks: Door-to-door collection of source-segregated domestic waste; maintenance of separate streams
Collection of road sweepings, biomedical waste excluded
Collection of garden waste, construction and demolition waste, e-waste on payment of user fees
Mode of collection: Manual pushcarts (small motorised vehicles introduced for difficult terrain)
Workers involved: Two workers for 200-300 households, offices, shops, other establishments
User fee: From all classes of users
User fee amount: Usually Rs 10 (US$ 0.20) to Rs 30 (US$ 0.54) per household per month depending on certain variables; in slums: Rs 15 or US$ 0.26 per household per month
Collection from slums: To be part-subsidised but this clause is not implemented
Rights over recyclables: Collectors have rights over recyclables and retain income from the sale of scrap
Provision of collection equipment and safety gear: Pune Municipal Corporation
Office, infrastructure and resource-recovery centres: Pune Municipal Corporation
Terms of payment: Operational grant to cover management costs and some operational costs reducing annually
Worker benefits: Medical insurance provided by the PMC
Complaints and customer care helpline: Operated by SWaCH
Performance indicators: Specified in agreement
Validity of MOU: Five years
Monthly per-household cost to municipality: Rs 4.38 (about US$ 0.08)


  • Operational area: Pune city (PMC jurisdiction)
  • Spread: 80 out of 143 kothis
  • Coverage: 340,931 out of 703,486 households (48%)
  • Slum coverage: 28,716 out of 54,584 households in 126 out of 553 slum areas

Member data

  • Member workers: 2,055
  • Members regularly paying 5% of earnings: 1,243
  • Daily worker absenteeism: only 3% of total workers (June-July 2012)

Three main reasons for absence:

  • Death/accident/illness/maternity leave (self or family) -- 26%
  • Out of station -- 22%
  • Other family-related reasons -- 12%

Contribution to SWM

  • Daily waste collected: 600 tonnes total
  • Recyclable: 90 tonnes diverted to recycling
  • Non-recyclable: 90 tonnes (includes recyclable materials for which the market is poor)

(Poornima Chikarmane is Associate Professor at the Department of Continuing and Adult Education, SNDT Women's University, and has been involved in organising wastepickers in Pune. Anjor Bhaskar is a research scholar at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences and has worked with the Kagad Kach Patra Kashtakari Panchayat and the SwaCH Seva Sahakari Sanstha in Pune)

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Infochange News & Features, August 2013