This IIT Delhi initiative is helping rag pickers earn up to Rs 25k a month

Paryavaran mitras at a cleanup drive in New Delhi.
As landfills are threatening to engulf not only India’s capital but most of its metros too, and people like us continue to throw our household waste into the bin with nary a care for where it ends up, a small initiative by the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) Delhi shows the way forward.

“Think of it,” says Ashish Jain, founder-director of the Indian Pollution Control Association (IPCA). “Delhi alone generates 15,000 metric tonnes of regular and 5,000 metric tonnes of construction waste every day,” he says. To most, this would seem like a worrying statistic, but Jain and his cohorts at IPCA see it as an opportunity. For they have trained ragpickers to collect waste door-to-door from affluent neighbourhoods in Noida and East Delhi, segregate it into all its recyclable components, and sell it to recyclers in Delhi. For their efforts, these ragpickers, dubbed paryavaran mitras (friends of the environment) earn up to Rs 25,000 a month. Even better, once they’ve been through it, barely 10 per cent, mostly medical and sanitary waste, is left for the landfill.

Here’s how they do it. “IPCA has trained us to collect unsegregated waste and separate it into glass, plastic, paper, PET bottles and compostable kitchen waste,” says Bijay Sah, a paryavaran mitra who has been associated with IPCA since 2007. “Further, it has also connected us with waste recyclers and aggregators.”

Once the waste has been collected from households and colonies, it is brought to one of the 40 segregation centres that have been established throughout Delhi-NCR. All the kitchen waste is composted. Recyclers convert PET into yarn for t-shirts, melt tin cans and transform plastic into pellets used in construction, and more. Sah says recyclers pay between Rs 70 and 80 per kilo for cans and Rs 25 to 30 per kilo of plastic. “To a lay person, these rates might seem absurdly high,” he says. “But over the years we have seen that there is a very good demand for properly segregated waste!” The work is so lucrative that they do not even charge residents welfare associations for their door-to-door garbage collection services.

Pickings have improved in the last year since the government introduced the concept of Extended Producer Responsibility. This means that manufacturers, producers, brand owners and importers of products must bear a significant degree of responsibility for the environmental impact of their products and packaging, especially multi-layer packaging (MLP). IPCA has tied up with 16 FMCG majors including Pepsi, Nestlé, Cargil and Dabur to collect their MLPs. “We’ve trained our paryavaran mitras to identify and separate the waste products of these brands as we now get paid separately for them,” says Jain. They are now earning about Rs3,000 more per month from this new initiative.

However lucrative, the work is not easy. Waste segregation involves contact with hazardous materials, including needles, broken glass, sanitary waste and batteries, resulting in frequent health issues like fever and skin infections. Further, waste collection and segregation is looked down upon, and often, the children of rag pickers grow up around waste dumps. “We run five informal education centres for them and also try and ensure those who have dropped out of school re-enter mainstream education,” says Jain.

The need of the hour is for waste to be segregated by those who produce it — people like us. “For this, we organise awareness drives in middle class and affluent neighbourhoods,” says he. But it’s slow going.

Meanwhile, IPCA has trained over 150 rag pickers to collect waste from 200 households each. “We’re working with 30,000 households in Noida and East Delhi,” says Jain. “Our aim is to train ragpickers to do this across Delhi.” This will not only reduce the load on its landfills, but it also has the potential for becoming a valuable livelihood option which doesn’t require a lot of training. Meanwhile, Sah, who came to Delhi with Rs 200 in his pocket in 2007 and now owns a house and car and sends his daughter to a good private school, dreams of setting up a waste collecting business in Jharkhand, his home state. He’s earned his riches from rags, and is proud of it.

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