Waste Networks: Economics, Informality and Stigma



Trash talking; there’s more than cities can manage

As consumption patterns across the globe are soaring, so is the corresponding generation of waste – and some of the statistics related to this are alarming. A recent World Bank study estimates that ten years ago, the daily per capita waste generation of the world’s urban population (around 2.9 billion) was around 0.64 kg. Today, both figures have shot up: urban areas house around 3 billion people, generating 1.2 kg of waste every day – meaning that every year, 1.3 billion tonnes of garbage is created in the world’s cities. Neither does this trend show any signs of slowing down, since the same report projects that by 2025, this quantum will nearly double.

In the developing world, the chief concern is that the formal mechanisms for waste management have come nowhere close to building this kind of capacity. In developed countries, centralized approaches have been implemented to handle waste treatment but elsewhere, most cities still follow fragmented, haphazard systems of collection and transportation, and rely on landfill-based approaches to dispose of waste. If the per capita generation of garbage were to go up as projected, it’s highly doubtful that local governments in developing countries would be able to effectively manage them.

The shadow ecosystem; there’s money in your trash

Luckily, they don’t have to do it alone – parallel informal economies centered around waste management have developed across cities in the Global South. These players scavenge, sort, aggregate and upcycle waste; passing it along a well-developed waste chain until it is ultimately recycled. Such communities exist in several developing countries; kabadiwallas in India, catadores in Brazil, cirujas in Argentina, buzos in Costa Rica and cartoneros in Mexico.

Statistics suggest that they are doing a much better job of handling urban waste in developing countries. From a quantitative point of view, informal sectors have demonstrated a better percentage of resource recovery as compared to formal mechanisms in several cities. In Cairo, for example, it is a startling 30 percent to the municipal corporation’s 13 percent. It is also interesting to think about the incentives that drive the formal and informal waste sectors. For instance in India, service providers are paid according to the tonnage of waste they bring to the landfill. They are, in this sense, incentivized to collect, transport and dump more waste into the landfill. This model has lead to serious issues with regards to handling city waste responsibly. In Chennai, there have been many reports of dumping high volume, low weight plastic into the rivers, because this type of waste does not give formal service providers a high return. There have also been reports of garbage trucks picking up large stones and rubble, so as to boost the tonnage brought to the landfill.  On the other hand, informal sectors derive economic benefit from upcycling waste and the peripheral activities associated with it (sorting and aggregating) and are incentivized, instead, to find value in what is discarded everyday.

Economics of Waste; the zen of the informal waste market

Since the informal  ecosystem has developed primarily around an economic incentive, it functions in a fairly organized way – specific categories of waste are assigned prices, which are defined largely by their recycling potential. For instance, categories that have inherent value, such as copper from wiring, have extremely high price points. Those that can be upcycled into a material of value – such as high value plastic and paper – are also in high demand. On the other hand, lower value plastics are assigned lower price points and categories that have no back-end processing potential are neglected and omitted from the ecosystem altogether. It’s largely for this reason that most waste found littered on streets in developing countries include thin polythene covers, thermocol and other materials that lack back-end processing technology.

The functioning of this ecosystem is also defined by the fact that it has grown to fill a gap. All over the world, informal ecosystems develop only where formal ecosystems are unable to cope with the amount of waste generated and operate in parallel with them. Because of this, they serve an important purpose in the urban context. In Dar-es-Salaam, waste is formally collected only twice a week. Informal collectors fill this gap and charge a nominal fee that residents are happy to pay. In Santa Cruz, Bolivia, informal workers service a whopping 37 percent of the population. Indonesian waste-pickers scavenge and upcycle one-third of the country’s waste and in Nuevo Laredo, Mexico, it has been estimated that the economic impact of scavenging is almost half a million dollars every month. Informal players also have an advantage in specific parts of urban centres, such as slums and hilly areas that have poor roads, since their vehicles are smaller and easier to use in them.

Waste and Stigma; the invisible ecosystem

However, the informal context within which this sector operates poses its own set of problems. Informal waste players face a great deal of stigma from society and local governments. In many developing countries, their activities are criminalized and they are frequently harassed by authorities. In Cairo for example, the waste-pickers’ donkey carts were banned from the streets of the city between sunrise and sunset. In Colombia, a shocking ‘social cleansing’ program was implemented during the 80s and 90s by paramilitary forces, that regarded waste-pickers as ‘disposable’ and banished them from certain neighborhoods. The movement reached its zenith when the bodies of 40 waste-pickers, who had been killed and harvested for organs, were found at a Colombian university.

This stigma is particularly shocking given the huge service that the informal waste ecosystem performs for urban centres – upcycling waste and keeping it out of the landfill. On the other hand, popular perceptions of them are generally negative because of regressive associations with their choice of work. The informal waste ecosystem remains invisible in most cities in the Global South, with its impact unquantified. Particularly in India, no attempt has been made to improve its efficiency in delivering an effective way for residents, commercial establishments and industries to send less waste material to urban landfills.

The road ahead; incorporating the informal waste ecosystem into the formal ways cities handle their waste

Thankfully, there are examples of cities that are adopting more inclusive approaches to shed visibility on informal waste players. For instance, in São Paulo, a Brazilian graffiti artist named Mundano created a project named ‘Pimp My Carroça’. The project was carried out over a month, during which time more than 50 artists and volunteers came together to revamp the carts (carroças) that belonged to waste-pickers and itinerant buyers. The carroças were beautified and equipped with security signals and mirrors, while the waste-pickers and their families were provided with medical check-ups, psychological therapy, meals, haircuts and even massages.

As a country, Brazil has implemented several programs that seek to formalize and incorporate the informal waste economy, and this initiative has been highly successful in adding a sense of legitimacy to the work done by waste-pickers and itinerant buyers. It’s an example that several other cities can learn from. While such a large-scale inclusion program is yet to be developed in India, there are local examples: in Pune, for instance, informal rag-pickers have been formalized under a cooperative called SWaCH, provided with equipment and ID cards and roped in to collect waste for a fee. In Bangalore, a member-based organization called Hasirudala works at bettering rag-picker conditions, offering them structured employment and fair pay.

However, for a national-level model of inclusion, we require a change in mindset – a breaking down of the perception of informal waste workers as being dirty or backward, and an acknowledgement of their contribution to lessening the load on our landfills. Legitimizing the informal sector is one of the first steps in offering its players a sense of dignity, an assurance of safety in their professions and an acknowledgement that they are the silent players who are taking care of a much larger problem.

– Written by Kavya Balaraman. Kabadiwalla Connect is a Chennai-based project that aims at reducing waste sent to urban landfills by leveraging the potential of the informal sector. Our partners include Gubbi Labs and the Indo-German Centre for Sustainability, IIT-Madras. Read the post on their blog.


‘Waste Picker Cooperatives in Developing Countries’ – Martin Medina

‘What a Waste: a Global Review of Solid Waste Management’ – The World Bank

‘The Economics of the Informal Sector in Solid Waste Management’ – the Collaborative Working Group (CWG)

‘Pimp My Carroca’ – People of Change – http://weofchange.com/pimp-my-carroca/

Image Sources








Islamophilia cannot be an effective answer to Islamophobia

re-posted from Huffington Post, Huffpost Students UK, by Karthick RM, 23 December 2014.

islamophobiaThe recent siege by an Islamist in Sydney has raised all too familiar debates about Islamophobia. The general right-wing argument, of course, is that such acts of terrorism are justified by a hard-core minority of Muslims and that downplaying the role of Islam is potentially harmful. On the other hand, the general liberal-left argument is that expecting all Muslims to condemn such acts is bigoted because a whole community cannot be held accountable for the actions of a few ‘deranged lunatics’.

Central to both arguments is an unstated belief that the Islamic identity is central to all Muslims, and while the former despises it, the latter preaches a patronising tolerance of the same. And both are wrong.

We have to look at Islamophobia as the tendency to blame Muslims as a whole, without any differentiation of nation, culture, class, gender, and political orientation for terrorist acts committed by Islamists.

Likewise, we have to look at Islamophilia as the tendency to exonerate Islam as an ideology from the crimes that are committed in its name, as the belief that the Muslim identity is good in itself and is central to an adherent of the faith.

Reality, if anything, shows the contrary. Proponents of the two sides are unlikely to remember that the first state to declare itself officially atheist in the world happened to be a predominantly ‘Muslim’ country – socialist Albania. Under Enver Hoxha, the state banned religion and religious preaching, shut down mosques, and tried to achieve gender parity in all services. In practice, the ‘Muslim’ Hoxha was the most rabid Islamophobe of the previous century. Incidentally, it was precisely those western governments – who are now accused of harbouring Islamophobia – who railed against Hoxha for curbing religious freedom for Muslims.

Several other examples could be given. The Indonesian Communist Party led insurgency, the Kurdish movement in the middle-east, the Marxist-Leninist Communist Party (Turkey), the Communist Party of Iran – all militantly secular movements led by ‘Muslims’ – have faced brutal repression from variants of Islamism. It would be a brutal illogic to say that the murder of thousands of individuals from these movements had nothing to do with the Islamic ideology that the states they challenged upheld.

Why is this important? Drawing parallels from other cases, can we say that the Inquisition’s slaughter of tens of thousands of heretics at the stake was just an act committed by a few ‘deranged lunatics’ and that the ideology of the Church had no role to play in it? Can we say that the discrimination against Dalits, the lowest castes in the Hindu hierarchy, owes to a few bad individuals and is not a structural problem in Hinduism? Can we say that war crimes perpetrated by the Sri Lankan state against the Tamils were just acts of bad soldiers and they can be divorced from the genocidal intent of Sinhala-Buddhist nationalism?

Similarly, we cannot excuse the Islamic ideology from the terrorism and violence that is committed in its name. There is a lot in political Islam that justifies violence against non-Muslims, sexism and terroristic acts and those Muslims who have been fighting it for long have written the best testimonials. For liberals in the West to ignore this and to engage in downright immature acts, like wearing a hijab to convey solidarity with Muslim women, is tantamount to mocking those progressives in Muslim communities who resist the cultural diktats of political Islam.

A more critical approach to political Islam is needed. Commenting on the Rotherham child abuse scandal, which saw the sexual abuse of over a thousand white, mostly working class, children by men of Pakistani-Muslim origin, Slovenian Marxist philosopher Slavoj Zizek argued that raising questions about inherent sexism and violence in these communities is neither racist nor Islamophobic. Rather, it is this questioning alone that can guarantee an authentic co-existence.

Liberals and leftists in the West are right to condemn the bigotry of the majority community, but the fundamentalism of the minority community cannot be spared from criticism. If those identifying as left and liberal fail to criticise the dangerous trends of Islamism, the right will step up for the task. That is a future no one wants and political correctness can do little to fight it. Maybe one can start by expressing critical solidarity with those progressive movements from within the Muslim communities that are willing to think beyond narrow religious identities and are willing to challenge the bigotries in Islamic ideology.


Karthick RM is a PhD student and Graduate teaching assistant at University of Essex. He blogs at Unceasing Waves. Some initial further readings –

+ A Glance in to the Archives of Islam by Slavoj Zizek. Lacan.com – “One becomes a full member of a community not simply by identifying with its explicit symbolic tradition, but only when one also assumes the spectral dimension that sustains this tradition, the undead ghosts that haunt the living, the secret history of traumatic fantasies transmitted “between the lines,” through the lacks and distortions of the explicit symbolic tradition…”

+ When does criticism of Islam become Islamophobia? Pandaemonium – “Islamophobia is a problematic term. This is not because hatred of, or discrimination against, Muslims does not exist. Clearly it does. Islamophobia is a problematic term because it can be used by both sides to blur the distinction between criticism and hatred. On the one hand, it enables many to attack criticism of Islam as illegitimate because it is judged to be ‘Islamophobic’.  On the other, it permits those who promote hatred to dismiss condemnation of that hatred as stemming from an illegitimate desire to avoid criticism of Islam. In conflating criticism and bigotry, the very concept of Islamophobia, in other words, makes it more difficult to engage in a rational discussion about where and how to draw the line between the two.”

+ Islamophilia by Douglas Murray – “For the record I don’t think everybody needs to spend their time being offensive about Islam. Not only is there no need to be offensive all the time, but most Muslims just want to get on with their lives as peacefully and successfully as everybody else. But there is an unevenness in our societies that needs to be corrected.”

Pepper Blues

by Frederik Johannisson & Peter Bengtsen of DanWatch posted from the Ecologist magazine.

Pepper: how our favourite spice is tainted by a deadly legacy

From India to Indonesia pepper farmers are increasingly vulnerable to harvest failures, food price crashes and price fixing, an investigation by Frederik Johannisson & Peter Bengtsen of Danwatch has revealed.

‘One morning we awoke and found my dad having hanged himself in the bedroom, right here’, 20-year old Neethu says and points towards a dark corner of the dusty bedroom.

Neethu’s big brown eyes express both strength and shyness. She is home alone with her handicapped 14-year old little brother while their mother works in nearby quarry for 3 Euros per day. After the death of her father the three of them have shared the farm work of pepper and other crops on the tiny plot of land surrounding the red-brick house in the mountains of the Indian state Kerala.

‘My mum and I knew we had financial difficulties. I knew that dad had taken a ‘blade loan’ but I did not know how bad the situation was’, Neethu continues matter-of-factly.

A blade loan is a ‘pay or die’ loan from local moneylenders, often with exorbitant interest rates. Neethu assumes that the moneylenders threatened her father to repay or hand over his land, but he said nothing and took his reasons with him to the grave.

Neethu’s father was not the only one. During the last decade more than 1,700 farmers  committed suicide in the mountainous Wayanad District in the South Indian state Kerala. In these lush and evergreen mountains, still inhabited by wild tigers and elephants, farming is the only economic activity for a majority of the population.

Debt traps ‘lurk around the corner

India produces 50,000 tonnes of black pepper each year, half of this is exported. Much of the black pepper from India in your local supermarket could come from Wayanad and neighbouring districts.

During the 2000’s pepper prices crashed and have been linked to a wave of suicides among farmers in the Wayanad District. The pepper is mostly produced by small-scale farmers, comprising more than 90 per cent of the population and each having 1-2 hectares of land. Farmers’ prices per kg were reduced to one fifth in a few years. At the same time the pepper yield declined because of plant diseases.

‘The farmers could not repay their loans. Some took emergency loans to cover the payments of existing loans, sometimes with an interest rate higher than 25 per cent. When a farmer could not repay, the bank or moneylender sent a letter of eviction. That message was the crucial point where most of [those committing sucide] either hanged themselves or took poison by drinking their own pesticides,’ Director Dr.Anil Kunar from the agro-biodiversity centre MSSRF in Wayanad says.

Today the suicides are back to ‘normal’ rate. Local NGOs established training activities to help farmers in debt or gave financial support to the remaining family members. Debt relief up to 100,000 rupees (depending on the size of the loans) were given by the Kerala State Government to small-scale farmers. But today many of the farmers still depend on loans to be able to survive.

‘Debt is still wide-spread today. The debt trap still lurks around the corner. The problems facing the farmers have not changed since the suicide period’, says John Joseph from WSSS, a local NGO. ‘The problem is the combination of volatile pepper prices, increasing production costs and decreasing yields’, he says.

A risky business

Pepper prices are among the most fluctuating commodity prices, according to Aisha Schol, Manager of Corporate Sustainability Analysis at Fairfood International, a Dutch-based organisation. She says: ‘Small-scale pepper farmers are in a very vulnerable position. First and foremost, they have only pepper on their fields, so if pepper prices crash they are hit as if by a tsunami. They lose everything. Secondly, the soil has seen an intensive use of chemicals from fertilisers and pesticides for decades. Diseases and crop failure are very common now. Again, they can lose everything.’

On the distant island of Bangka in the Indonesian archipelago, farmers of white pepper struggle with fluctuating prices much like their black pepper farmer colleagues in India. Bangka Island has for decades been the biggest producing place of white pepper in the country.

Diddihatono lives with his wife, son and parents in a village house made up from wood and concrete. The family consists of seven people who all share the income from their pepper plants.

‘We cannot survive by pepper farming. So my brother and I work on a rubber field until noon before we go to our fields. Our pepper harvest failed last year, so we have only had the income from rubber for a long time’, Diddihatono says.

Diddihatono and Joserin harvest 10 kg of rubber on a normal day. They get 11,000 rupiah per kg, so daily rubber income is currently 110,000 rupiah. That is 4 Euro per person. In one month each of them earn only slightly more than the Government set minimum wage level for Bangka Island.

‘You cannot live a decent life for the minimum wage level, not as a family,’ Koko Sadmoko says. He is a Reuters journalist on Bangka and has done several reports from the countryside. ‘And you need to remember that pepper and rubber prices were lower recent years’, he continues.

The family of Diddihatono can afford just one meal per day. It always consists of vegetables from their fields – the rice they have to buy. Meat – local fish or chicken – is a rarity and restricted to once every second week. Santila, the beautiful 22-year-old sister of Diddihatono, is the only one who has had new clothes in a year.

Vulnerable farmers

Indonesian farmers not only struggle with price crashes and harvest failures. They are also in a vulnerable position when dealing with local pepper collectors that buy the pepper from the farmers and sell it to the big exporters in Pankal Pinang, the capital of Bangka Island.

‘I can’t afford fertiliser or pesticides, I have only 400 pepper plants. But my ”boss” gives it to me when I need it. We help each other’, says Silan, a 45 years old dark-skinned farmer with a big red cap and ill-looking yellow teeth.

The ‘boss’ is a wealthier farmer, often a collector. The term is a literal expression of the unequal relationship between small-scale farmers and collectors, a dependency where the farmers have not much of a saying.

Money is needed in white pepper cultivation on Bangka. Fertilisers, seeds and new poles for the pepper plants to wind about are necessary and costly. Pesticides are expensive too. Not all small farmers can afford these, and not at all if a harvest fails or the payment for the pepper harvest is less than expected.

The local collectors are often also the ones supplying farmers with fertilizers and pesticides. This can be lent as a favor as Silan experiences it. The dependency also includes information about pepper prices. The collectors are the only source of information about price levels for most of the small-scale farmers.

‘You don’t find small-scale farmers well-informed in these isolated parts of Indonesia,’ says Caecilia Widyastuti, a Jakarta-based agricultural expert. ‘The dependency of the collectors extends to the actual trading too. Pepper farmers don’t have much influence in a trading situation; their bargaining power is very poor and they are not organised at all’, she continues.

Collectors are for their part dependent on the price they are told by exporters and don’t have much bargaining power either. Toni Bakar, who works for one of the biggest pepper exporters called C.V. Panen Baru on Bangka Island, says: ‘The biggest challenge for us for a long time has been the international market pressing white pepper prices down. This we pass along to our suppliers of pepper (the collectors) who get a lower price. The price pressure continues to the farmers,’ he explains. The company Panen Baru sells pepper to companies all over the world.

Pepper from ‘suicide mountains

Several well-known pepper brands based in Western countries source black pepper from Kerala in India and white pepper from Bangka in Indonesia. Some don’t appear to have any formal Corporate Social Responsibility policies in place in relation to purchasing pepper. Others say they are committed to long term relationships with contract farmers which secures a decent price for producers. One larger company says it has been working on an ethical code for several years  and visits suppliers on a regular basis. The company says it has not noticed any of the pepper farmers’ hardships.

In Indonesia however we are told by local pepper exporters that international buyers hardly ever ask questions about social and economic conditions among farmers. In the Indian pepper mountains we are told the same.

Raju is one of many local middlemen, having a shop mostly comprised of small hills of black peppercorn waiting for the big trucks to arrive and to be loaded with pepper bags for spice exporters.

‘I don’t bargain with the farmers. I offer the market price. Then I sell to the exporters according to this price. I am as much a price taker as the farmers’, Raju states. He has never heard any of the big international exporters ask about social or economic conditions of the farmers: ‘They ask about price and quality only’, Raju says.

 Director John Joseph from the NGO called WSSS confirms this picture: ‘During the suicide years the big exporters visited Wayanad District as usual, but never showed any interest in supporting our programs to help the victims or prevent more deaths. They just ignored us’, he says.

In India, we talk to Sibi Thomas, Vice-President of AVT McCormick, which is a joint venture of the world’s largest spice company McCormick Inc. and the Indian company AVT Group. AVT McCormick sells black pepper to Santa Maria and is linked to the UK brand Schwartz.

‘We have Code of Conducts for our suppliers and we have audit systems in place. Regarding social and economic issues we focus on, among others, child labour, working conditions, medical insurance for workers, Government regulations must be followed…’ Sibi Thomas says.

But the social and economic conditions of pepper farmers are not included. The focus areas only target suppliers that do processing. If suppliers are only middlemen with no processing  the Code of Conduct and audit system is apparently not used.

‘Black pepper has only a few steps in the supply chain, and the suppliers do not do processing, so our audit system is not really used here’, Sibi Thomas says. Instead social training programs are supported by AVT McCormick.

There is no suggestion that AVT McCormick or its parent companies are involved in any wrongdoing or bad practice.

What can consumers do?

‘The big question is if prices continue to fluctuate according to international market demand, how can farmers ensure a steady income? How can they get a decent pepper price?’ The question is asked by agricultural and fair trade expert Suraj Padmanabhan and answered by himself: ‘One of the answers could be fair trade pepper.’

Some fair trade initiatives already exist. The Fairtrade Alliance Kerala (FTA Kerala) is headed by director Tomy Mathews from the company Elements.‘We established FTA Kerala in 2005 because crop prices hit rock bottom, the farmers debts and the widespread plant diseases. 3600 farmers were Fairtrade-certified the next year,’ Mathews says.

‘In 2010 the pepper prices were 110-140 rupees (approx 2 Euros) per kg for the farmers. We set our Fairtrade minimum price in Kerala to 175 rupees (approx. 2.5 Euros) per kg. Now pepper prices have rocketed way above the Fairtrade price. But anytime the prices can crash again’, he adds.

But even though there are some Fairtrade initiatives, it is not the majority producing Fairtrade in Wayanad District, according to Dr. Anil Kunar from MSSRF:

‘You might see a demand for Fairtrade, but exporters want large quantities when they buy. They do not bother to separate Fairtrade pepper from the ordinary pepper,’ he says.

At the Bangka Island in Indonesia we ask everyone we meet in the pepper business if they know about Fairtrade. No one has heard of the concept.

Back in the Wayanad mountains skinny Neethu with the big eyes does not want to work in a quarry like her mother. She wants to study and get a better job. The same goes for a lot of children of small-scale farmers.

To realise their dreams they need money. Either from their parents’ bank loans or by a steady income from their pepper plants. If they seek advice in the pepper statistics one thing is for certain: They cannot know for sure whether pepper prices will rise or fall, or by how much. But they can know for sure that they will be the first and the ones most affected by the price fluctuations.

DanWatch is a Danish research and media centre doing investigative journalism on corporations’ impact on humans and the environment around the world