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.