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Dec 19, 2010

Recycling - Waste Picking

Waste-pickers can be seen at work in the landfills of almost all cities in India. They earn around Rs. 100 – 200 per day ($ 2 – 4) in cities like Mumbai and Delhi; their earnings are much lesser in other parts of the country. Waste-pickers work on tons of heaps of solid waste dumped by trucks every day before the heaps are aligned. The depth of these heaps before aligning (not compaction) can be assumed to be a little less than the average landfill depth of 6 - 10 m [9] [10], to be around 4 – 5 m. They work by foraging the top layers of these heaps of solid waste for paper, plastics, glass and metal. In most parts of the country, the waste which lies deeper in the bed is left untouched as waste-pickers leave after earning enough for the day, thus leaving huge amounts of recyclable waste to be landfilled. Sight of large amounts of paper and plastics in the decomposed material being mined in landfills is common (no experiments were done to analyze this claim). Informal rag-picking thus does not serve the entire cause of sustainable waste management. Open burning practiced by waste pickers to recover recyclable materials like metals leads to burning of rags, textiles, wood, decomposable matter, leather and rubber. 
 The Dharavi Project in the slums of Mumbai identified waste-pickers, educated them and employed them to achieve a high percentage of recycling of about 80% of dry waste

This practice may burn up to 75% of combustible materials [11]and is a large source of dioxins thus deviating further from sustainable waste management in most parts of the country. Also, there is a high prevalence of both lower and upper lung function impairment, gastrointestinal, dermatologic, and neurobehavioral problems in persons working at landfill sites [12] posing a direct threat to public health, suggesting reforms in Informal rag-picking.

The Dharavi Project in the slums of Mumbai identified waste-pickers, educated them and employed them to achieve a high percentage of recycling of about 80% of dry waste [13]. It can be considered a success story of a present phenomenon (waste-picking) in the developing world. The numbers of waste-pickers in India can be envisaged as a huge human resource waiting to be employed efficiently. Considering all these, and the success of The Dharavi Project, it can be concluded that rag-pickers must be employed at MRFs so that they carry the responsibility of scanning through all the wastes with proper precautions in for good health. There are NGOs like the Acorn foundation India (of The Dharavi Project) working in utilizing the potential in waste-pickers but government encouragement would make the process easier and it is time government recognizes rag-pickers and their efforts in diverting waste from landfills. However, allowing them to work on mixed municipal wastes for the sake their livelihood or for environmental sustainability remains to be inhuman. Source separation needs to be practiced by the public for letting waste-pickers to work on it. Complex source separation practices like asking public to separate wastes into four to five streams instead of just two (Wet and dry) might prove inefficient not just for collection but also in encouraging people to do it. 


  1. I'm interersted in learning more about the recycling space in India. Would you be available for a quick call?

  2. Well this is really a great thing for waste management and disposal and it also gives the employment to the poor people. I have read your article and i am really impressed with it. The only thing i don't like that waste picking is totally done by kids which is not a good thing. It's our duty to keep clean our society with some good efforts. Thanks for sharing such a nice and informative article.

  3. nice article........most people think solid waste management is a dirty job since there is not a lot of money nor it is a glamorous job..... it is better to privatize the sector and provide infrastructure to the waste management in terms of better equipment and facilities. At a micro level it shud be mandatory to dispose the garbage into recyclable and non recyclable matter in every city and town.



CH4 Methane
Carbon Dioxide
Government of India
INR Indian Rupee
JnNURM Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission
LFG Landfill Gas
Mechanical Biological Treatment
MSW Municipal Solid Waste
NEERI National Environmental Engineering Research Institute
Refuse Derived Fuel
SLF Sanitary Landfill
SWM Solid Waste Management
USD United States Dollar
WPs Waste Pickers
WTE Waste-to-Energy
WTERT Waste-to-Energy Research and Technology Council