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Jan 24, 2012

Recognition and Integration of the Informal Sector in India

1. Organizing the Informal Sector
2. Public Policy
3. Integrating the Informal Sector into Formal SWM Systems
4. Change in Perception

1. Organizing the Informal Sector
The informal recycling sector in India is in fact well-structured and has a huge presence, especially in mega cities. This sector is responsible for the recycling of around 70% of plastic waste (37) and up to 56% of all recyclable waste generated in India. On the basis of all information collected during this visit, the author estimates that the informal sector recycles about 10 million tons of recyclable waste per year.

A women waste-picker employed at a composting facility to separate recyclables from the MSW

The high percentage of recycling the informal sector is able to achieve is the cumulative effort of large numbers of WPs on the streets, at the bins and dumpsites. For example, the informal sector in Delhi employs about 150,000 people who are 0.9 % of the population of Delhi (16.75 million) (3) (33) (39). Equally large populations of waste-pickers are estimated in Mumbai, Kolkata and Chennai. Other cities, such as Bengaluru, Hyderabad and Ahmadabad have slightly lower populations of waste-pickers. Based on information collected during this trip, the author estimates the total number of people involved in informal recycling in India to be 2.86 million, i.e. 0.75% of the urban population (377 million) or 0.23 % of the total population of India (1,210 million). Numerically waste pickers in India possibly outnumber those in any single country in the world (36). Coordinating such a large work force will be a heavy burden on ULBs due to the lack of necessary managerial resources.

2. Public Policy
Public policies towards the informal waste sector are largely negative in most parts of the world. It is either because of embarrassment at the presence of waste pickers or ‘concern’ for their inhuman and unhygienic working and living conditions.
This has led to police harassment as in Colombia; to neglect as in parts of West Africa; to collusion, where waste pickers are tolerated in return for either bribes or support to political parties as in Mexico City (40). In case of developed economies, they have allowed their informal recycling systems to disappear and as a result are now struggling to re-establish systems to rebuild recycling percentages to former levels and meet the ever-increasing recycling targets (40)But, the Government of India has clearly held a different path with an informed perspective. Blind eye towards waste-picking until now has been largely due to the sector's unreliability and inadequacy in managing enormous quantities of urban wastes. Their absorption into formal systems is also hindered by their lack of accountability unlike formal systems which are accountable to the public.

3. Integrating the Informal Sector into Formal SWM Systems (36)
To transform the aesthetics of waste handling by the informal sector, it has to be
a)      assisted to provide professionalized and efficient waste collection services;
b)      encouraged to introduce value added services;
c)      convinced about the importance of service level benchmarks and monitoring;
d)      made aware of the importance of maintaining work ethic and discipline; and
e)      trained according to their work, depending on whether they are waste pickers, itinerant buyers, sorters or graders.

4. Change in Perception
The role of informal sector in recycling resources was recognized in the latest Plastic Waste (Management and Handling) Rules, 2011 that were regulated by the Ministry of Environment and Forests (MOEF). These rules make municipal authorities responsible for coordination of all stake holders involved in waste management, including waste pickers. Such laws are necessary in inching towards sustainable waste management and need support in the form of relevant policy changes at the national level.
Institutionalizing the informal sector can overcome the issue of unreliability. This was evident in the case of road sweeping in Hyderabad, where the contracts were awarded to organized groups of informal waste pickers and workers. Also, employing self-help groups of waste pickers in door-to-door collection has proven successful nationwide; individuals in these groups have much better working conditions compared to earlier (41). Thus, the focus should be on institutionalizing the informal sector. Considering the ongoing widespread privatization of the MSWM sector, it is very important to frame policies that make the employment of waste-pickers in the corporate sector easier. Once employed, the minimum wage requirements, labor laws and operational health and safety regulations will ensure their welfare. However, solving intricacies which arise due to such regulations will be a formidable challenge to policy makers.
Further analysis and studies on the sector’s impact on a) diverting waste from landfills and thus b) reducing need for transportation, along with c) waste characteristics before and after waste-picking will help involving informal sector in MSWM plans further.


  1. Recycling at home makes cents. Most municipalities now collect just about everthing for recycling. This includes all your paper, glass, cans, and plastics #1 & 2. If you and your neighbors can reduce your trash enough, you and your neighbors could combine trash pick ups.

  2. Awesome,
    Thank you so much for sharing such an awesome blog...
    food waste management strategies



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