• BHARATI CHATURDEVI is an environmental activist and writer who works with Chintan, a non-profit in India.
Jahnara Begum is up by half past 5:00 in the morning. By 7:00, she has cooked lunch, woken and bathed her two children, fed the family breakfast, and reached work. Her own morning snack is a glass of tea and a glucose biscuit – a cheap, flat cookie most of the Indian middle classes now buy to feed stray dogs and homeless children begging at the street corners. Jahnara’s work is to pick the trash of a hundred and fifty households in the heart of Delhi. At each door she rings the bell and a maid greets her with an unsorted bag of trash.
Photo by Bharati Charturdevi.
By about 11:00, Jahnara has loaded just under half a ton of waste on her cycle rickshaw. From this damp mixture, she will remove paper, cardboard, metals, and plastics with her bare hands. Each day, she salvages nearly eighty kilos. At the end of the day, she will earn more than the average shop assistant in a small grocery store. But she will receive much less respect. Everyone dislikes waste pickers.
“They are dirty,” is a usual refrain. “We may look dirty but it’s us who keep the city clean,” waste pickers typically respond.
In Indian cities, waste pickers segregate and recycle nearly 20% of the waste. They do this through a complex chain of traders and re-processors. Without the waste pickers, such a chain would cease to exist and India would lose its only recycling system. A unit of plastic, for example, increases in value by 750% before it is even converted into something else. Its value increases when it is cleaned, washed, and segregated into a category of its own.
But keeping the city clean is only the tip of the iceberg. Globally, the approximately twenty million waste pickers are key green actors in a consumptive world. By keeping waste out of landfills and recycling it instead, greenhouse gas emissions are significantly reduced. In Delhi, for example, waste pickers prevent 3.6 times more greenhouse gas emissions than any single waste project nationally registered for carbon credits.
Other downstream and upstream benefits follow. By recycling metals, waste pickers reduce the need for mining, and mining devastates both ecologies and communities. By recycling plastics, they reduce the trash that will choke animals on land and in the oceans. By recycling paper and cardboard, they ensure these materials don’t end up rotting and spewing methane in dumps. All over the world, such cooling agents reduce the carbon footprint of hundreds and thousands of people who can afford to consume. When they find intact goods, they use them at home or trade them. They live the 3 Rs – Reuse, Reduce, Recycle. Waste pickers remind us that the real green economy is already playing out.
This post is an article from Paper Radio Issue #2: Trash. Paper Radio is CoLab’s print publication.