Your Waste is
By ERICA LEE NELSON
SPAN March/April 2010
Bharati Chaturvedi, founder of the New Delhi-based NGO Chintan, has set out to re-make the image of kabari wallahs, ragpickers and junk dealers in India. Her message is not just for the householders who directly or indirectly benefit from their services every day. It is for the marginalized communities themselves.
“You are not a polluted low caste or a minority,” she emphasizes in pep-talk sessions. “You are an environmental agent. You are changing this city and you deserve recognition.”
U.S. Embassy Recycles Newspapers
The U.S. Embassy in New Delhi has started a program to recycle newspapers, reduce plastic bag usage and help refugees.
The embassy’s Green Team has placed green recycling bins throughout its grounds. Employees are encouraged to deposit their newspapers in the bins.
The papers are then collected by maintenance staff and handed over to the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees. The newspapers are used by refugees, most of them from Myanmar, who will turn the papers into bags. These will then be purchased by the American Community Support Association for use in the commissary and restaurants on the embassy compound.
“These paper bags will replace the plastic bags currently being used, which are harmful to the environment,” says Jeffrey Weinshenker, a consular officer who helped found the Green Team. “For this to work, everyone needs to ensure that only newspapers are put in the bins—no organic waste, water or coffee cups—nothing but unspoiled newspapers.”
“This is the first of what we hope will be many initiatives by the Green Team to recycle, reuse and reduce to create a greener community,” Weinshenker says. “We will send out green tips periodically on how everyone can be a participant at all levels. For example, did you know that we can save significant amounts of electricity by shutting down our printers every night, and that printer cartridges can easily be recycled by returning the used cartridge in the same box it arrived in?”
Assistant Information Officer Torrey A. Goad drops a newspaper in a recycling bin at the U.S. Embassy in New Delhi.
Chaturvedi believes that ragpickers and the informal business sectors that surround them are “green jobs,” and should be placed in the forefront of sustainability efforts. They sort trash, recycle all that they can, and even cut down on transportation fuel emissions by coming straight to our doorstep to collect trash, rather than requiring huge garbage-collection vehicles and individual trips to the dump or recycling plant, as in the United States and other countries.
With a small staff of 23 to perform community organizing tasks, provide schools for ragpickers’ children and run recycling centers, Chintan helps the community earn decent wages, receive basic services, and legitimize and gain respect for their work.
On a practical level, in April 2008, the NGO began a contract with the New Delhi Municipal Corporation (NDMC) for door-to-door waste collection from over 50,000 households. Not only does this service, which is expanding every month, keep residential colonies clean, it gives the waste collectors dignity and efficiency by enabling them to separate waste at the source—not to mention a regular wage. (See box on page 17.)
Reaching up to the lofty realms of international politics, Chintan, in partnership with the Washington, D.C.-based Advocacy Project, has recently completed research showing ragpickers’ contributions to mitigating climate change. The ragpickers’ profession even got a positive mention in the section on informal sector work in India’s 2006 National Environment Policy.
For Chaturvedi, these were some of her most cherished successes. Getting mentions in high level policy documents “gives you a solid tool” to talk with authorities on the state and municipal levels, she says. “Getting many more actors and stakeholders to agree that the informal sector is vital, we’ve had policy shifts as a result of this.”
Becoming an activist
Chaturvedi’s office in South Delhi has a laid-back feel, with old Hindi movie posters and brightly painted walls. Perhaps the most interesting feature is a white and black-spotted puppy, Carbon, that Chaturvedi rescued off the street when the rest of his siblings were killed by a car. Carbon likes to eat rotis and jump on her office couch, much to her disapproval.
Chintan in Action:
in New Delhi
With practiced efficiency, Abdul Samesh, 25, breaks open the plastic bag holding one family’s daily trash. The fruit peels, tissues and uneaten French fries spill onto an old sari he has laid out near the dumpsters. With the larger recyclables such as bottles and plastics already inside his NDMC-provided rickshaw, he only needs to sort out the paper, cardboard and other small pieces which might get a few extra rupees from the junk dealers in Nizamuddin. There are five different rates for recyclable paper: ranging from wet, soiled paper to dry, clean office paper (which can go for 5 or 6 rupees per kilogram), and he separates each small scrap accordingly.
Before Chintan’s contract legitimized their work, people like Samesh would have had to jump inside of trash bins to find the recyclables, risking cuts and exposure to chemicals. Now he wears a uniform, carries an official ID card, and greets residents at their door. Covering about 125 apartments daily in the government housing on Pandara Road, Samesh owns whatever recyclables he collects.
Three sanitation workers cover this area, and when the collection is done they come together in a designated space to sort the trash. Samesh’s colleague, Sahrudin, 30, used to work as a daily farm laborer in Assam. Now, he reports his work is more enjoyable and provides a more stable income. “It is good because every day we are able to sell the trash and out of that we get money to eat,” he says. In addition to earning an average of 100 rupees a day from selling waste, he gets 500 rupees in salary from Chintan every month, which is paid for by collections from the residents’ associations.
What cannot be recycled is placed in separate dumpsters and taken to a landfill by a private contractor. And, sometimes, when the sorting is finished, there are surprises. “Once I got a mobile phone out of the trash. It was a little broken but I fixed it,” Sahrudin says with a smile.
Workers like Sahrudin save the NDMC money in terms of trash collection and transportation costs. Chintan’s manager for research and advocacy, Malati Gadgil, estimates that the services provided by ragpickers across all three Delhi corporations save the city about Rs. 12 lakh daily. —E.L.N
A Chintan sanitation worker, Abdul Mojit, collects waste by going door to door with his rickshaw in New Delhi.
For Chaturvedi, taking in a street dog is just another natural progression of her passion for saving the planet and helping the underprivileged. This has taken her from the halls of Delhi University to plastic recycling centers on the outskirts of Ghaziabad, Uttar Pradesh and all the way to Johns Hopkins University in Washington, D.C. Chaturvedi holds a Masters in international public policy from the university’s School of Advanced International Studies and is a senior fellow at the Synergos Institute in New York City.
The path, however, has not been a typical one. She graduated from Delhi University with an M.A. in history, and did not necessarily believe she would become an activist. She became aware of environmental issues in college, and found herself fascinated by the daily activities of hawkers and kabari wallahs outside her door. Soon she was exploring where all the waste generated from the houses actually went.
“I was very disturbed to see the conditions of work, both in terms of how hazardous the work is but also in terms of how poorly treated waste recyclers are,” she says. “It’s as if because they work with hazardous materials, they themselves seem like toxic people.” Despite all these challenges, she was amazed by “the kind of skills they develop, the entrepreneurship they are able to create and the fact that they give us these phenomenal…services in our cities.” Eventually, she was moved to act, and founded Chintan in 1999.
A Washington, D.C. sojourn
The NGO ran successfully for many years. Even then, Chaturvedi had an urge to continue her education, which had not been possible with her busy schedule as an NGO director. After some uncertainty, she started looking at graduate school programs in the United States.
“I went because I felt like I was getting to my intellectual glass ceiling,” Chaturvedi says. “And I felt that I really wanted to throw myself into something which challenges, pushes me.”
She made a list of things she wanted from a school: a big city, a well-rated university, and a place with a diverse student body and subject choices. After extensive research, she opted for Johns Hopkins.
“I took quite a big risk because I left Chintan for that year…and it did not disintegrate or collapse. I had a great team, but I also had so much faith invested by the waste recyclers that they were able to continue to partner with Chintan knowing that I wasn’t going to be there.” While studying, she returned to New Delhi every three months to attend meetings and lend a hand.
The U.S. sojourn served as a time to study and reflect, as well as a chance to learn more about waste issues worldwide. In Washington, D.C., Chaturvedi says she had varied impressions of waste management. On one hand, she felt that high consumption levels and packaged foods were leading to unnecessary waste. On the other hand, she witnessed efficient recycling systems and communities that were highly aware of the need to recycle and compost kitchen waste. She also discovered the thriving U.S. “secondhand” culture which encourages reuse and reselling of household goods and clothing. (See box above.)
Recycling and Reuse in the United States
Like most countries, the United States is working hard to reduce its waste generation. For many Americans, recycling has become a part of daily culture. In many cities, separation of recyclables from general trash is mandatory.
Many Americans also enjoy shopping for bargains at “secondhand” stores, such as those run by the Salvation Army or Goodwill Industries. People donate used furniture, household items and clothing to the stores, and these are then re-sold to benefit charitable causes.
Some Americans, especially those who work on restoring and fixing older cars, also frequently visit junkyards. These are places where machines, mostly cars and trucks, are taken apart and disposed of. People search through the junkyards as a cheap way to find the car parts they need. The junkyard then sells the unused metal for recycling. A U.S. TV show, Junkyard Wars, is a contest for teams of engineers and mechanics to create functioning machines made from whatever they can find in a single junkyard. —E.L.N.
Cynthia Duff finds old wheel rims in a junkyard in Nebraska. Duff was taking part in Junkyard Art Wars Invitational, a competition in which art is created from scrap metal.
While studying, she was fascinated by the work of city agencies and their efficient methods for recycling in even the largest federal government buildings. Commenting on the differences between the United States and India, she says, “They do an upgraded version of what we do. But the point is, how do we jump and become upgraded? I really wish I could set up technical collaborations with them...so we can have the best of India and the best of the U.S. together.”
Though she graduated and returned to New Delhi in 2006, she continues to use her U.S. ties to help Chintan grow. In addition to joint research with The Advocacy Project, Chintan received help from Witness, a media-centered NGO in New York, to make short, educational films. “We had no money for all this, but it’s all about getting the right partnership,” she says, noting that if she hadn’t gone to Johns Hopkins, she wouldn’t have made these connections.
As she continues to expand Chintan’s activities and research, Chaturvedi reports that her future goal is to get people with higher income levels interested in grass-roots action in India. She would like to see India’s growing middle class “developing a new inclusive kind of citizenship” that can help to spread the benefits of economic growth.
For this endeavor, she uses her writing talent to reach a wider audience, whether it is blogging for the popular U.S. e-magazine, The Huffington Post,or writing regular columns for The Hindustan Times. She has even written a book and is currently looking for a publisher. As expected, the themes of the book are the themes of her life: bringing social and environmental justice together.
Erica Lee Nelson is a Washington, D.C.-based journalist who is studying at Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi.