This article was originally published by Earth Day Network – India in its eBook ‘Pathways To Green Cities: Innovative Ideas From Urban India’
South Asian Forum for the Environment (SAFE) runs ‘Resolve: Trash to Cash’, a project that has empowered ragpickers to turn trash into cash. The effort has been recognised by UNEP in their ‘Clean Up the World Campaign.’ Efficient waste management is a major problem in India’s urban spaces. The city of Kolkata is no exception. According to estimates, 5,372 metric tonnes of solid waste is generated in Kolkata every day. Waste paper forms 7.4% of the trash. This is increasing by 0.63% per annum.
The overburdened Municipal Corporation services cannot cope with these vast quantities, with the result that waste is often just dumped into open vats. Urban audits indicate that over a half of Kolkata’s slum dwellers are settled around these municipal dumps where they eke out a meagre livelihood by scavenging to retrieve items for recycling.
The slum dwellers are engaged in the waste trade as collectors, aggregators, or suppliers. They wade into garbage heaps to retrieve recyclable items. Their efforts earn them a mere 2–5% as brokerage, as the larger chunk of profits from the activity—crores of Rupees—accrue to a handful of powerful traders. What an unstructured and non-equitable revenue distribution system. In addition, the ragpickers are exposed to the hazardous diseases they are likely to get exposed to.
To help change this radically unequal and explosively unstable urban world, SAFE created ‘Resolve: Trash to Cash’ as an entrepreneurial opportunity for the urban poor, in particular, women ragpickers. This waste recycling project is steadily taking shape as a micro-enterprise that develops entrepreneurial skills in slum dwellers. It provides social recognition and empowerment to those who were earlier socially ostracised.
SAFE began by holding workshops in slum areas to explain ways to earn cash from the trash. The interactions also provided an opportunity to gauge the interest of the slum dwellers in being a part of the project. Those who volunteered to ‘give it a try’ were formed into Joint Liability Groups (JLGs) comprising 10 members each. The first project was to make papier mâché gift items out of waste paper. Banks were approached to open accounts for the JLGs—a Herculean task, as most of the JLG members had no documents as an identity proof. Thanks to well-wishers and sheer perseverance of SAFE officials, UCO bank opened
accounts for the JLGs.
Training workshops conducted by master trainers began in earnest. All the JLG members were provided basic information on marketing strategies, business acumen, finance management and the basics of accounting. The women, for whom it was easier to stay home and work, learnt ways to make gift items out of waste paper. Several corporate sector units volunteered to segregate trash at source so that the waste paper needed could be collected easily. Bins were placed in their offices to facilitate this. SAFE helped in marketing the finished products at fairs, via social media and to the many corporate houses that purchase these as gifts for distribution. A five-star hotel in Kolkata has just placed an order for eco-friendly papier mâché picture frames!
‘Resolve: Trash to Cash’ is fully owned by the women members who elect representatives and have a say in decision making. Initial funding for the pilot project came from Vodafone Essar Limited, followed by support from the National Bank for Agriculture and Rural Development and the Kolkata Urban Services for the Poor programme of the Government of West Bengal.
There are many positive results from this innovative project, the most important of which is that ‘Resolve: Trash to Cash’ helps to mainstream socially excluded marginal urban poor without displacing them from their trade. Instead, they help organise their efforts into a structured revenue return model through technology transfer and an understanding of finances.
Economic empowerment has come by virtue of an increased income of nearly 35% over previous earnings. This is apart from funds that have been kept aside as working capital. Around 400 persons who participated in this programme directly or indirectly are now covered by micro-finance insurance. Tata-AIG Life’s specially designed policy towards risk enabled this. On the environment side, a positive attitude toward the need to segregate waste at source has developed.
This has resulted in the reduction in landfill emission footprints and environmental pollution. The success of the paper waste recycling project has encouraged SAFE to introduce other projects as well. These include recycling of wet garbage into vermin compost that will reduce emissions from landfill and at the same time promote sustainable agriculture. Also, a project that focuses on the reuse of non-biodegradable plastic bottles as mould casts for creating home gardens.
About the author: Amrita Chatterjee is Head, Communication & Research, South Asian Forum for Environment.
Featured image source: Resolve: Trash2Cash.