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Jan 24, 2012

Informal Recycling Sector - Inadequacy, Unpredictability and Health

1. Inadequacy and Unpredictability
2. Hurdles in Organizing Waste Pickers
3. Health Risk Assessment of Waste-Pickers

1. Inadequacy and Unpredictability
The existence of the informal recycling sector in Indian cities is useful to municipal corporations and beneficial to the community and environment. However, at the same time waste pickers are known to burn wastes at landfills (38) in order to recover metals or to keep warm at night. Open burning of wastes by waste-pickers and other people in addition to intentionally or accidentally set landfill fires are a major source of air pollution in Indian cities, emitting particulates, carbon monoxide and organic compounds including toxic dioxins (5). Waste-pickers are constantly exposed to emissions, have unhealthy living conditions and are prone to injuries and diseases, all of which decrease their overall life expectancy. The ill-health of waste pickers is a public health problem and even though they are generally not in contact with the public, it poses a threat to the overall health of the community.
Informal recycling is only a part of the solution to the SWM crisis in India.
At maximum potential, the informal sector can handle about only 20 - 30% of the generated wastes and also it is absent in cities like Kochi where labor unions do not allow people to work without a membership, which is denied to waste pickers. Though complete absence of the informal recycling is not the case everywhere, this sector is small in many cities. Significant informal recycling occurs in only the largest cities of a state or region. Also, waste-picking at landfills is difficult because of the height/depth of waste heaps. Mixed wastes are dumped in heaps at landfills and limit foraging to the top layers of the heap, leaving those at the bottom untouched. In summary, the Informal recycling sector in its present state is inadequate and unreliable in 
solving the SWM crisis.

2. Hurdles in Organizing Waste Pickers (36)
-          WP organizations are not very extensive geographically across India. Almost all organizations work in only metros and other large cities;
-          WPs are dispersed, argumentative and arrogant at times, street wise and street smart and willing to challenge and ask questions simply because they have nothing to lose being where they are;
-          WPs tend to be migrants who return to their villages during specific periods in the year. Therefore, all organizing and formal work has to take into account this demographic trend, which is very challenging, given the demands of formal service provision;
-          Given the informal nature of work, WPs enjoy flexibility in work schedules. Organizing them becomes additionally challenging as there is no fixed routine within which to intervene and make time for organizing activities;
-          The degree to which a particular material will be recycled depends on income levels; the existence of local and national markets; the need for secondary raw materials; the level of financial and regulatory governmental intervention; prices of virgin materials and the international trade in secondary raw materials and relevant treaties (16) , therefore all recyclables need not necessarily be recycled by the sector and are thus MSW of no value is left on streets or burnt openly.

3. Health Risk Assessment of Waste-Pickers
The working conditions for pickers and collectors are unhygienic and safety equipment such as gloves and boots are unaffordable for waste pickers. Thus, the health risks for WPs are high.
Due to the lack of safety equipment, (36)
a.       68% of the WPs in Delhi injure themselves regularly,
b.      21% injure themselves often
“They (WPs) are constantly exposed to stench produced by rotting waste and the smoke and fumes produced by open burning of waste. They are also exposed to air-borne bacteria as well as infectious or toxic materials present in solid waste are determinants for respiratory and dermatological problems, eye infections and low life expectancy.” (16)
Figure 26, Higher Incidence of all Diseases tested for in waste pickers; Appendix 10
WPs were also found to be suffering from occupation related musculo-skeletal problems, respiratory and gastro-intestinal ailments. 82% of the women waste pickers studied in a health study were found to be severely anemic. This could be not only as a result of malnutrition, but also due to exposure to toxics, particularly heavy metals (36). During a clinical examination of municipal workers, waste pickers and controls conducted in Kolkata, it was found that waste pickers had a higher incidence of all 16 health problems tested for, compared to the control population (CP) and MSW staff (Figure 26). The five most prevalent health problems observed in waste pickers’ were Cardiovascular risk (77%, around 8 times that of CP), Altered immunity (64%, around 6 times that of CP), Breathing problem (56%, around 3 times that of CP), Nose and throat infections (54%, around 3 times that of CP) and Lung infections (53%, around 3 times that of CP).
The increased risk of ailments due to direct exposure to MSW is important to know. The five health problems with increased risk of incidence in WPs are Chromosome break (around 12 times that of CP), Elevated mucus production (11 times that of CP), Covert lung hemorrhage (around 8 times that of CP), Cardiovascular risk and High PM10 exposure (around 7 times that of CP). There is a clear decrease in the incidence and prevalence of health problems among MSW staff workers, as they use better protective wear, take precautions and can easily access other facilities due to the formal nature of their employment. The prevalence of health problems in MSW staff workers is also high compared to the control population and strict measures should be taken by ULBs to improve their health and thus the overall health of the city.


  1. Dear Ranjith,

    my name is Arnauld and I am an international postgraduate student at the Grifftih University, Brisbane (Australia). As part of my assessment in International Business Finance, I am looking for information regarding the market volume of municipal solid waste in India. How much MSW is generated per year? It would be very nice if you can provide me some relevant information.

    I am looking forward for your answer and thank you for your help in advance.

    Kind regards,


    Student of International Business at Griffith University, Brisbane

    Email: arnaud-maximilien.schaller@griffithuni.edu.au



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