The International Alliance of Waste Pickers is a union of waste picker organizations representing more than 460,000 workers across 34 countries
Supported by Logo WIEGO

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Written by Kabir Arora


Country India

May 11, 2020

1. Preference may be given to waste to energy over recycling

The recycling industries across the world and in India are completely shut. The supply chains of materials for recycling have been disrupted. Waste management has been identified as essential services. Waste is being collected from households. In the cities where segregation is in place, the organic waste is destination bound. One is not very sure whether the waste is being composted. In the case of dry waste, the collection is ongoing. The dry waste collection facilities or collectors are stocking the high-value recyclable material. The low-value recyclable material is being sent to dumping sites. Due to the limitation of space, most dry waste collection facilities cannot stock a lot of waste and if the lockdown continues, at some point in time they may stop collection. Unless an alternative is provided.

In Delhi, the residents have stopped segregating the waste and the mixed waste is sent to Bhawana Waste to Energy Plant, this includes both organic waste and high and low-value recyclable material. The plant is receiving the waste more than its running capacity. A lot of high-value material including plastic can become the carrier of the SARS-COV2 virus, this may discourage recycling. The high-value material has calorific value, thus very useful for incineration. Incineration may become the norm of the day. If the recycling of material is to continue one needs to find ways to make sure that the virus does not travel on the waste material.

Further, the oil prices have been at the historic low. They may stay low throughout the year and later. This will make virgin plastic cheaper than recycled plastic. The low price of virgin plastic and the stigma of being a ‘possible carrier’ of the virus, may make the recycled plastic less lucrative in the market.

There is a need to identify creative ways to sanitize the recyclable material. Similarly, we need a stronger commitment for Extended Producers Responsibility, which in turn support the informal recyclable material market and resurrect the demand for the recycled plastic materials.

2. Recyclable material prices going down further

With the shut down of the recycling industry, there is no demand for the recyclable material. Once the lockdown gets over, the godown owners and aggregators would like to clear the already stocked material, at any available price. In the context of virgin plastic being cheaper, it is given that the price of recycled plastic material must be lower than the price of virgin plastic. With the increased supply of material (clearing the stock) and low demand, the prices will go down further and stay there for an exceedingly long time. This low price and higher supply will hit the bottom of the recycling pyramid the most.  Waste-pickers will go out for picking material. Once picked, they may not get the price which they were receiving earlier as the scrap dealer or aggregator would like to first clear their existing stock. It is important to mention that considering the scale of pandemic and no medical solution available, there will be no grand opening of the economy i.e. government will encourage staggered opening (rightly so) of the industries. Oversupply of material, recycling industry running at a staggering pace will be another factor in lower prices of the recyclable material. In Mumbai, many of the recycling enterprises are operated by migrant workers. A lot of them have returned to their place of origin. Staggered opening of the recycling industry will be further dependent on the return of migrant workers.

Thus, creating a cash crunch at the bottom, with the waste-pickers and small scrap dealers having no cash or income.

A) Efforts like emergency support income need to be made to support waste-pickers. These include supporting the waste-pickers by opening their bank-accounts under the Jan Dhan Scheme. Union and state governments have made commitments for providing emergency support income. Many of those with Jan Dhan Bank accounts have received the amount of INR 500.

B) Many small and large scrap dealers would be keen to buy material, because of no quick trickle-down of the cash from the re-processers, they may not be able to do so. In that scenario, the low rate of interest loans from non-banking financial institutions to the scrap dealers can be a way to inject cash in the sector.

C) Setting up the fair price aggregation centres with the involvement of waste-pickers and small scrap dealers to hold onto buffer stock of the material collected by waste-pickers and small scrap dealers. In the long term, they can complement the existing supply chains. This intervention will require both grant and credit support for at least a year before becoming sustainable.

D) Including the recycling industry in Micro, Small and Medium Enterprises (MSME) and extending the provision to help to MSMEs can go a long way. Recycling should also be included in essential services, as it is an extension of the solid waste management ecosystem.

E) A large part of working poor’s income goes in buying food. In the short term, donor-driven staple food provisioning can provide some relief. This is not a sustainable measure. Efforts need to be made to ensure that all waste pickers are linked to the public distribution system. Some amount of advocacy work is also required for strengthening the public distribution system, reducing leakage and adding vegetables, fruits and eggs, milk in the distribution system. The current PDS is restricted to the sale of wheat, rice and lentils at a subsidized price.

Note: Under the Extended Producers Responsibility framework, many large corporations in Brazil have supported the waste-pickers (organized) with the emergency support income.

3. High drop-out of school-going children

With no income in hand, parents will not be encouraged to send their children to school. There is a possibility of an increased number of children going to work, and not to school. To ensure that they attend school, children may require scholarship support to manage their school expenses or support in kind for books, notebooks and uniform.

For the children of waste-pickers, Union Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment has a special scholarship scheme ‘Children of parents working in the unclean occupation.’ It is a pre-matric scholarship and provides INR 3000 annually for day scholars and INR 8000 for those in the hostel. The occupational identity card of the parents is enough to enrol in the programme. Advocacy efforts need to be made for increasing the amount of the scholarship.

If scholarships cannot be provided, a low rate of interest loans for children’s education, with flexible payment cycle is another way to ensure that children go to school. Their parents can pay the amount in the long run.

Note: Panchkula Municipal Commissioner set up a scholarship scheme for children of the sanitation workers, where they receive INR 20,000 annually. The amount increases if the children score well in the examination. This support starts from the school level and can be extended to the college level.

4. Severe physical and mental health repercussions

In general, waste-pickers are susceptible to many infections, COVID 19 will make them a lot more vulnerable. Till the time, the preventive medicine to deal with SARS -COV2 virus is not developed, their vulnerability will not go down.

A) To ensure that they stay healthy, efforts need to be made for expanding the usage of ‘quality’ protective gear. These include glasses for the eyes, good quality and relevant gloves, washable masks and shoes. A monthly or bi-monthly meeting for reminding everyone about the usage and benefits of protective gear will make the process sustainable.

B) Provisioning and refilling of the hand-wash or sanitizers and maintaining physical distance at the workplace is also necessary.

C) In case of sickness, waste-pickers will need cash or support system in place. The employers or the organizations of waste-pickers can enrol them in the government-sponsored schemes like Ayushmaan Bharat. This will help them avail treatment at a low cost. A collective insurance scheme with the support of the municipal corporation or the employers can be set up as has been done in Pune. Pune Municipal Corporation has been contributing to the insurance of the waste-pickers. Advocacy work needs to be done to increase the insurance cover and ensure that all members of the family of the waste-pickers are also included in it.

D) Many waste-pickers in India suffer from a cardiac condition. With reduced income and no money in hand, they may not be able to buy medicine. Based on the prescription medicines for such illnesses should be provided free through the Primary Health Care Centre.

E) Lockdown will result in mental health issues. These issues can be as wide as being a survivor of domestic violence or stressed about the payment of the debt. Connecting with a trained counsellor and having regular sessions for all the workers at the workplace is a good way to deal with it. One day with a few hours at hand can be set aside for counselling or collective listening, where workers or waste-pickers can share how they are doing and dealing with physical and emotional stress.

F) Supervisors can be encouraged to do some ‘active listening’ at the workplace. Active listening is a process is like holding a conversation, where one asks about the wellbeing of the co-worker or a colleague. Listens to concerns and issues one is dealing with. While doing so, avoid giving advice. It is the act of listening which is helpful in dealing with mental and emotional stress.