Historical Perspectives on the Informal Waste Sector



Ever year, 42 million tons of waste is generated in India, which is the same as the amount of wheat Australia produces annually

Like most countries that are growing quickly and witnessing rapid urbanization, India is beginning to face serious concerns regarding the disposal of its waste. Until now, most urban local governments have adopted an approach to waste management that is neither sustainable nor particularly responsible – identifying landfill sites, filling them with mixed waste for periods that can stretch over decades, and eventually moving on to a new location.

The problem, though, is that leachate and toxins from untreated waste can affect a particular region for years, which is why municipal corporations are now finding it more and more difficult to appropriate areas to convert into landfills. In Bangalore, for instance, the residents of a village called Mavallipura, adjoining one of the city’s primary landfills, resisted efforts to continue disposing of waste in their backyard in 2012; the result was tens of thousands of tons of untreated waste, deposited on the streets of the city. Chennai, on the other hand, is currently routing its waste to two peripheral landfills – both of which will be reaching the end of their lifespan by the end of the year. As of now, no replacement area has been found.

Ironically, urban authorities do not need to face the challenge of sustainable waste management on their own. Most Indian cities have a robust industry of waste ‘experts’ – collectors, transporters and even recyclers – who make a livelihood out of waste, albeit under the radar. Most households sell old newspapers and cardboard to their neighbourhood kabadiwallas, but these men are merely the tip of the iceberg; in fact, the informal waste sector includes not just grassroot-level waste collectors, but series of middlemen who aggregate, sort and transport waste to the appropriate recycling facility – thus keeping it out of the landfill.

The Waste Chain

From a historical perspective, informal waste economies – at least as they are recognized today – began to develop around the 19th century. This was mainly in Europe and largely a by-product of urbanization and industrialization. As urban centres began to form and expand, the quantity of waste generated by them shot up as well. Simultaneously, the spread of the industrial revolution led to an increased demand for raw material, which proved to be infinitely cheaper when sourced from waste. As a result, an informal sector that began to identify items of value within waste streams, and then source, aggregate, process and eventually recycle them, began to form.

Spatially speaking, informal waste industries have organically formed in developing countries. While the first scavenging sectors sprung up in Europe, waste management systems in these countries were soon formalised and steered by local governing bodies, removing any room for unorganised private entities to continue making a living off waste.

However, the reverse has been true for countries such as India, Brazil, Serbia and Cambodia. These countries have witnessed rapid urbanisation, which directly translates to a huge increase in waste generation. They also experience large-scale migration of unskilled, untrained labour towards cities, most of which have no option but to turn to informal occupations such as waste-picking. Moreover, as countries develop more, their urban centres tend to produce a higher proportion of dry waste (paper, plastic, metal and the like), which have huge markets as raw material for the manufacturing sector.

On the other hand, their local governance mechanisms have not yet developed to the point of completely taking over the workspace of informal players. In India, for example, municipal corporations have the infrastructure and capacity to collect an average of only 70 percent of municipal solid waste, and even less to actually process it. This creates the ideal working conditions for a parallel shadow economy to operate.

Very few attempts have been made to actually map out and quantify the informal waste industries in different countries. Largely, this is because it’s extremely difficult – most waste-pickers and small-scale processors work under the radar and prefer to keep it that way, so as to avoid any form of harassment from city authorities. The sector itself is also a fairly disorganised one, with a huge overlap between activities, scale and hierarchy, making it tough to actually categorise its layers. However, there are exceptions to the rule. The Brazilian government, for instance, has formally recognized waste-picking as an occupation and included it as a category in their official census. This has also allowed it to introduce various schemes to better incorporate these entities into formal waste management mechanisms.

In doing so, Brazil has tapped into a potential answer to waste management concerns that most developing countries can learn from: the informal sector has huge capacity for keeping waste out of landfills. As a community, these players have a lot more collective experience in dealing with waste profitably (and as a consequence, responsibly) than most local governments. They have organised themselves into a form of hierarchy based on scale, with lower-rung rag-pickers accessing waste from dumpsites, landfills and formal collection cycles, and higher-level middleman aggregating and segregating waste streams according to market demand. Scrap-dealers at the highest end of the waste chain deal with hundreds of tons of a particular waste category on a daily basis, supplying in bulk to manufacturers looking for cheaper sources of raw material.

Incorporating parallel economies into our formal mechanisms is far from an easy task; it involves policy-level decisions and some forceful execution to actually leverage the potential of the informal sector. On the other hand, given the kind of waste crisis that Indian cities are facing, this doesn’t seem to be an option we can ignore.

– Written by Kavya Balaraman & Illustrated by Satwik Gade. 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.


‘Municipal Solid Waste Management in Indian Cities – A Review’ – Mufeed Sharholy, Kafeel Ahmad, Gauhar Mahmood and RC Trivedi

‘Waste Picker Cooperatives in Developing Countries’ – Martin Medina

‘The World’s Scavengers’ – Martin Medina

‘Statistics on Waste Pickers in Brazil’ – WIEGO 


Games for Actors and Non-Actors excerpt – The Nuclear Power Station

“Wouldn’t it be wonderful to see a dance piece where the dancers dance in the first act, and in the second showed the audience how to dance? Wouldn’t it be wonderful to see a musical where in the first act the actors sang and in the second we all sang together?

What would also be wonderful would be a theatre show where we, the artists, would present our world-view in the first act and where in the second act, they, the audience, could create a newworld.

Let them create it first in the theatre, in fiction, to be better prepared to create it outside afterwards, for real.” (p.29)

Forum Theatre is a technique, or a compendium of methodologies, developed in the 1970s by a Brazilian theatre director, Augusto Boal. It creates a theatre where the audience is encouraged to be participants (spect-actors) in identifying and dramatizing the connections between socio-cultural problems, economic and political repression, and also internal and personal oppressions. First, a group of actors devise, rehearse and enact a play presenting a certain view of the world, with at least one political or social problem, which can be analysed during the forum session. Then, the spect-actors are asked if they agree with the solutions given by the protagonist. The actors then perform the play one more time, but this time the audience members can yell stop and take the space of the protagonist and change actions. Forum theatre plays can be surreal, linear, or in any style or genre that organically grows from the rehearsals, but the objective must be to discuss concrete situations. Games for Actors and Non-Actors is a collection of games and exercises that can be used in any space that needs discussion, dialogue, theatre, and action. Boal has written experiential notes along with the games, to give you the context of where it was developed, and how it played out. Here is an excerpt from the book, an example of a forum theatre play in Sweden, discussing many themes we have spoken about in Chai Kadai –

“In Sweden, the controversy over nuclear energy and the construction of power stations was very much a live issue. Some even said that the main reason for the gunning down of Prime Minister Olof Palme was his having affirmed that he would pursue a policy of nuclear gearing-up. His opponents said the opposite – and afterwards, they did it anyway…

1st action

Eva is in her office, at work. The scene shows friends, the Boss, day-to-day problems, the process of finding new projects to work on, the daily grind of a hard life.

2nd action

Eva is at home; her husband is out of work, their daughters are spendthrifts, they need money. A Female Friend drops round, they go out. They go straight to a demonstration against the construction of atomic power plants.

3rd action

Back at the office. The Boss comes in whooping with joy: a new project has been accepted! Everyone celebrate the news! Champagne is consumed! Joy unbounded…. till the Boss explains what this new project is about – the development of a refrigeration system for a nuclear power station. Eva is torn; she needs work, she wants to support her fellow workers, but this situation poses a moral problem for her. She gives all the reason she can for not accepting this new project, and her colleagues give their opposing reasons. Finally Eva gives in and accepts the job!

The forum

In this piece it was clear that the protagonist was going to have to commit an error and not be heroic. The audience almost cried when Eva gave in. And the effect of this was an extraordinary intensification of the fight – the game of actors/oppressors against spect-actors/oppressed – when it came to finding reasons for Eva to say no. Each time a spect-actor gave in and saw that she was beaten, the piece rapidly retraced its path towards Eva’s ‘Yes’. Passions in the audience ran high again till someone shouted ‘Stop!’; then the scene stopped a new spect-actor tried a new solution starting from the first action, or the second, or even the third. Everythin was analysed: the husband’s unemployment, the daughters’ mania for consumption, Eva’s indecision. Sometimes the analysis was purely ‘psychological’, then another actor would come in and try to show the political side of the problem.

Should we be for or against nuclear power stations? Can one be against scientific progress? Can the word ‘progress’ be applied to science when it leads us to the discovery of nuclear weapons?

And on the question of the disposal of ‘nuclear waste’: surely it could be satisfactorily disposed of in a social system whose central value was the human being rather than the profit motive.

I have already twice had the opportunity to take part in pieces of this kind. The first time was in the USA, where an analogous piece had been written about the inhabitants of a town which was producing the napalm used in Vietnam. In the end, in the American example, the inhabitants accepted the factory, reaching the conclusion that it would be economically ruinous to close it….. Ruinous for whom? The second time was in Lisbon, again with a similar model: there is a refinery there which is causing a noticeable increase in the occurrence for lung cancer…. but it is important for the economy. Here again, the residents give way and resigned themselves to living with pollution, rather than living without jobs.” (p. 26, 27, 28.)

Read more on the International Theatre of the Oppressed Organisation’s website: www.theatreoftheoppressed.org

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