The Many Lives of Paper




This is a post by one of Kabadiwalla Connect’s research interns, Rajesh, who works at the Indian Institute of Public Policy. Rajesh has been involved in collecting data from the field.

Chennai has a thriving informal market for scrap paper; most neighbourhoods have local kabadiwallas who buy paper from homes and other generators at the market price. This is just the tip of the iceberg, though, since this paper is a crucial part of a much larger recycling network. It’s rather ironic to note that both the paper currency in our wallets and the scrap paper we sell to kabadiwallas carry value.

As part of the initial pilot surveys with the Kabadiwalla Connect team, I happened to come across a large go-down near MMDA Colony. It was around 2400 square feet and used almost exclusively for storing and sorting scrap paper. The piles of paper there were neatly baled and packed into special gunny bags, before being transported to locations around the city where paper waste is processed. The paper go-down interested me, and so I spent some time there finding out more about its functioning.

Paper finds use in several forms based on its quality. Our newspapers are mostly 35-50 GSM, while the inner pages of mid-market magazines pages (like those of Kumudham, Kunkumam, Viketan etc.) are generally 90 GSM. Posters and paper sourced from stationary stores are between 130 GSM and 170 GSM. At the other end of the spectrum, 180 to 250 GSM paper is used for printing high quality magazine covers (like those of National Geographic, Discovery TLC, and Gadget Magazines). Finally, business cards are made of paper of 350 GSM and above.

The owner of the go-down spent time explaining to us how the kinds of waste paper find their way to his establishment. A typical day starts at about 10.30 am, when accounts from the previous day are settled and business hours begin. The owner has established connections with different printing presses in the city, and they call him to pick up waste paper that has been accumulated from the previous working day. They are picked up by daily wage freelance waste-pickers, who use either tricycles (the Vyaparis) or Tata Aces (aka the ‘Chinna Yaanai’, or ‘Small Elephant’). The waste paper is then dumped in the sorting yard where four employees begin sorting it into categories based on quality. The concept of GSM really doesn’t ring a bell with them and so they have their own names for the various types of paper.

Newspapers are divided into English and vernacular publications for the simple reason that each category fetches a different price per kilogram. Bound books are sorted into notebooks, textbooks and magazines. Sheets of paper are divided into print paper (mostly low GSM ad posters that accompany newspapers), white paper (un-used A4 size sheets), black (black and white printed A4 size sheets), colour (coloured low GSM paper) and more. The high quality GSM paper arrives a little later.

Once sorted, the paper is shredded to increasing packing and baling efficiency. Baling not only reduces the space taken up by the material, but also helps in the recycling process, during which time the paper is treated with chemicals, separated into fibres and reconstituted once again into paper.

“We normally get our supply of waste paper from printing presses. In recent times, they have begun to attract a lot of customers who wish to print books, brochures, magazines, certificates, banners etc. For every square metre of paper printed on, atleast 5-10 percent results in wastage,” claimed the owner, adding, “Business is a little low now since not too many people, especially the educated ones, want to recycle.”

He has a point – with the advent of IT companies and the rise in education standards, many have now lost the need to send in their waste paper for recycling. Municipal dump yards have been growing at higher rates with the increase in the number of residential complexes. The only way forward now would be to encourage the public and the kabadiwallas to co-operate and help each other sustain a clean and green environment that would truly embody the spirit of the Swachh Bharat campaign.

So what exactly does recycling paper mean in terms of benefits to the economy, environment and us? Recycling 1 ton of paper saves close to 20 trees, 26 cubic metres of water, 2.3 cubic metres of landfill space, 320 litres of oil and 4100 kWh of electricity, which is almost enough to power an average Indian home for close to 1.5 years! So, the next time you come across waste paper, pick it up and give it to your neighbourhood kabadiwalla.

– Written by Rajesh Ramesh. 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 Networks




This post was written by Michael Lytton, who is collaborating with Kabadiwalla Connect on research and outreach. Michael is an urban planner with 30 years of experience in the public sector.

I was recently reading a bi-weekly news roundup on waste pickers, and it occurred to me that the publication is a great way to help readers see the bigger picture. The free newsletter that I was reading is published by Women in Informal Employment: Globalizing and Organizing (WIEGO). The group — it is a global network, and not focussed exclusively on women — is dedicated to the working poor in the informal economy.

The newsletter offers information and insights, examples of government initiatives and policies, and inspiring stories. It is an important instrument in support of WIEGO’s mandate to “build alliances and draw on the expertise of individuals and institutions from constituencies around the globe”.

The news roundup for March 2-15 included the following items:

  • In Brazil, the Ministry of Social Development will choose four associations or waste pickers cooperatives for selective collection of waste produced by the Ministry for six months.
  • In Chile, one thousand women recyclers will be trained in management and entrepreneurship programs.
  • The federal government of Egypt inaugurated a program to pay waste pickers in the city of Cairo.
  • Also in Brazil, the National Bank for Economic and Social Development provided Sao Paulo with $41.8 million to raise the recycling rate of household waste from 1.6% to 10%, and to accelerate the inclusion of waste pickers.

In addition to the countries cited above, there are stories from India, South Africa, Dubai, Fiji, Argentina, Peru, Mexico and Honduras.

More than 3,800 news items about the informal economy have been published by WIEGO since 2014, helping to build capacity among informal worker organisations, expanding the knowledge base, and influencing local, national and international policies. At the same time, stories from around the world put local efforts in context.

For example, a new project to install Sustainability Stations throughout the city of Curtiba, Brazil is remarkably relevant to Chennai. Under the banner of education for sustainability, Curtiba’s Department of Environment is making a major effort to engage the population in the management of recyclable waste. The intent is to change the culture of the population in the sorting of waste, making it responsible for separation and for rethinking waste production.

“We want to involve citizens in the management of solid waste, optimise selective collection, and create a mechanism of social inclusion by delegating the management of waste collected for recycling to cooperatives or associations,” explains the Municipal Environment Secretary, Renato Lima.

Sustainability stations are part of the Voluntary Delivery System of Recyclable Waste, whereby citizens bring their waste to a modified shipping container that will receive 12 types of recyclable materials. The program provides for the deployment of at least one station in each of the 75 districts of Curitiba, with each unit intended to serve residents within a 300-meter radius. Outreach staff from the Department of Environment will go door-to-door to announce the installation of each new station, and distribute a booklet with guidelines for proper separation and disposal of recyclable materials.

The current scheme follows Curtiba’s rewards-based recycling program Câmbio Verde (Green Exchange) that was launched in 1991. It began as an exchange of waste for bus passes but soon included basic food staples exchanged for waste.

The idea became the model for the Mexican city of Puebla where a program Monedero Ecológico (Ecological Wallet) was started in 2010. This private sector program gives residents a credit for every kilogram of solid waste they bring in. The credit can then be used for discounts on school supplies, cell phone minutes, clothes and food.

It is interesting to note that Curtiba’s current policy of citizen engagement and voluntary delivery of recyclables comes decades after its selective collection project.  Curtiba shut down its dump in 1988 and the following year began collecting and separating recyclable materials (glass, plastics, paper) three times a week under its renowned Lixo Que Não é Lixo (Trash That Is Not Trash) program. The deployment of dedicated recyclable collection points along with active citizen participation is a progression that will ostensibly result in economies of scale, improved quality and value of recyclables, and new skills for waste pickers.

Clearly, advocacy organizations such as WIEGO can be enormously valuable sources of information. They are more than 3,000 publications and resources on its website. There is a vast repository of working papers, organising, legal, technical, statistical and policy briefs, and profiles of workers’ lives. In many ways, the wheel does not have to be reinvented.

India is in the early stages of modern and effective municipal waste management. Concepts and details such as legal frameworks, integrated waste management, use of voluntary drop-off points, organised waste picker associations and cooperatives, waste education, and inclusion are in most instances still only ideas or early experiments.

At the same time, the challenges cannot be underestimated. On the issue of inclusion alone, researchers describe the process as “bumpy”, pointing out that “[w]here inclusion is taken up by the municipality with the intent of increasing recycling rates, waste picker cooperatives must negotiate a host of issues, including access to equipment and space, coordination of sales to maximise pricing across seasons, materials and geography, and the difficulty of resolving conflicts within the waste picking sector itself.”  Furthermore, even in apparently successful situations, efficient waste management is not labour intensive enough to absorb all or even a small share of the people who survive on trash scavenging. In Bogota, for example, an estimated 14,000 people survive as waste pickers, while the inclusion process provides incomes for 700 people. And although inclusion can be part of a broader social agenda that incorporates microenterprise development, such programs depend on resources outside the typical portfolio of a city waste collection agency. To truly address the needs of waste pickers, waste management modernisation must be coupled with broader social policies.

That said, avail yourselves of the resources of such exemplary organizations as WIEGO. You will be educated and encouraged.

– Written by Michael Lytton. 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.

Picture sources