Giving a Voice to India’s Waste Pickers
Globally, 300 million tons of plastic is produced each year – that’s the equivalent weight of the whole population of the world. Every year. While plastic is an amazingly versatile product, it is virtually indestructible, with a life span of over 1,000 years.
Poor waste management coupled with human neglect has resulted in plastic pollution covering our planet like a disease, with over eight million metric tons a year entering our oceans. Therefore, plastic pollution is one of the most pressing environmental issues, as the rapidly increasing production of disposable plastic products overwhelms the world’s ability to deal with them.
Plastic pollution is most visible in developing nations, where garbage collection systems are often inefficient or nonexistent. Almost half the planet’s population live without access to organised waste collection, which in turn has given rise to an informal waste picking economy – as uncollected waste is picked by some of the world’s poorest people in an attempt to make a living. Given that over 150 million tons of plastic is estimated to be currently circulating in our oceans, it is clear that these waste pickers have a pivotal job in stopping plastic from entering our waters. However, these waste pickers, many of whom are women, often live below the poverty line and work in appalling conditions. This is why The Body Shop, who have been advocates for both environmental and human rights issues since it was founded in 1976, have attempted to tackle both the plastic crisis in a human-centric way. In addition to their three decades of experience of working with disadvantaged communities around the world, they are partnering with not-for-profit business Plastics for Change and social enterprise Hasiru Dala in Bengaluru to focus on securing social justice for waste pickers.
Plastic for Change was set up by Andrew Almack in 2013, and works with local Non-Governmental Organisations (NGOs) and commercial partners to bring price stability and access to the global market for waste pickers. Its mission is to help transform discarded plastics into a resource for positive change. Hasiru Dala works collaboratively with the waste pickers, in the areas of: identity rights, access to family education, healthcare, housing and pension, skill development, market and employment access, and multi-tier policy advocacy.
Plastics for Change and Hasiru Dala primarily operate in India, because 80% of the waste in our oceans comes from India alone, causing the country to have one of the highest volumes of waste pickers worldwide. India’s rapid population growth has drastically increased the countries’ plastic consumption and infrastructure development has not kept pace, resulting in a dramatic increase in plastic waste. In India there are 1.5 million waste pickers who rely on sorting through rubbish and selling on anything recyclable for their livelihood. India’s waste pickers collect and sort over 6,000 tonnes of plastic every day that would otherwise pollute our rivers and oceans. Therefore, these waste pickers not only keep cities clean, but also form a critical line of defence in stopping plastic from entering our rivers and oceans.
Despite this, waste picking is one of the lowliest jobs in society, and is almost an exclusively female role, with the majority shunned by society and working in appalling conditions. The majority of India’s waster pickers are Dalit’s, which is the lowest caste in the Hindu societal system. This means
that these people have virtually no visibility in society and have limited rights and access to healthcare and education. They are vulnerable to discrimination, poor living and working conditions and unpredictable payment for the plastic they collect due to corrupt supply chains. For instance, in the past three years, waste pickers have seen the value of plastic drop by as much as 60% overnight, leaving many malnourished and unable to provide for their families.
Whilst Plastics for Change and Hasiru Dala work tirelessly to support waste pickers and stabilize the price they are getting paid, this effort would be futile if the plastic isn’t being bought. This is where The Body Shop steps in. They have become the commercial partners of Plastics for Change and Hasiru Dala, and will buy the collected plastic at a fair price. In the partnership’s first year, The Body Shop will purchase 250 tonnes of what they call Community Trade plastic, which will be used in nearly three million 250ml hair care bottles by the end of 2019.
This however, only marks the start the company’s wider ambition, which is to introduce Community Trade plastic across all products which use Polyethylene terephthalate (PET) plastic within three years. Globally, PET plastic is the most common single-use plastic, and although most PET bottles can be recycled, only 60% of the bottles are reused or repurposed. This, coupled with the fact that PET bottles use virgin plastic, means that 40% of the plastic that goes to landfill is only used once.
Therefore, the fact The Body Shop is incorporating plastic that has already been recycled into their bottles, marks a positive change to minimise the use of single-use plastic. Over the course of the three-year initiative, the amount of plastic bought will be scaled up to purchasing over 900 tonnes of plastic, which in turn will empower 2,500 waste pickers in Bengaluru. The Body Shop have pre-agreed in advance the price for 250 metric tonnes. This reduces volatility for the informal recycling economy and helps to provide consistent income opportunities for the waste pickers. This means that waste pickers will receive a fair price for their work, a reliable income and access to better working conditions. All pickers will also receive ID cards, which offers social protection for workers and their families. Once pickers are formalised, rights can be given; they will be able to open bank accounts, have access to education and healthcare services, and have the respect and recognition they deserve.
One waste picker, helped by The Body Shop’s initiative, is Dolly, who from her early waste picking days, recounts tales of harassment from authorities, which is a devastating reality for waste pickers. Now, she is able to rent the land she and her family sort waste on, and thus enjoys the pace and safety of her new community. The fact that there is now a steady market for recycled plastic gives the whole family an element of control in their lives, as they are able to make plans and save money for future generations.
Another benefiter is Annamma, who as the daughter of a waste picker, was not able to get another job, and break out of the societal constraints her birth restricted her to. However, with the help of Plastics for Change and Hasiru Dala, Annamma has been trained in managerial skills, and now runs her own waste picking business. Today, two of her children are at university studying plastic engineering with the goal to enter India’s sustainable tech economy and tackle the plastic crisis further. This initiative is exceptional as it thinks about the plastic crisis differently. It not only reuses the abundant resource of recyclable plastic already exists by preventing it from entering our ocean, it
celebrates the waste picker, and gives them a sense of pride in what they do. A hugely overdue celebration, as what waste pickers do for our planet is truly remarkable.
Originally published in The Stag, September 2019