Earth Day Special: Investing in Waste Management
A non-profit along with a group of waste pickers has shown how waste can be an important source of livelihood and can also be recycled into useful materials that reduce costs and carbon footprint.
Waste is wealth. This is what we are learning from the ragpicker women of Thane district in Maharashtra, who have been involved in an incredible initiative by the non-profit Samarth Bharat Vyaspeeth (SBV), which has touched many lives and changed the way people look at waste.
What started as a small initiative to help 3-4 women ragpickers with skilling and alternate employment by the non-profit, has turned into a massive success story of waste management which connects over one lakh households in the community, engages with over 60,000 children, employs 24 women and prevents about 30 tons of waste from being dumped every single day.
So how did this initiative scale up to this level?
It happened because the concept of alternative employment for the ragpicker women did not work. The women were not keen on leaving the work of waste collection. “They depended on a daily wage income to run their households since they never had any savings and had to pay several debts. Switching to a monthly income job was simply not feasible. Therefore, they started demanding more waste from us,” explains Mr. Bhatu Sawant, CEO of SBV.
Partnering with local municipal corporation
After listening to their demands and concerns, SBV collaborated with the Thane Municipal Corporation to aggregate more waste, which would otherwise go directly to a dump and risk further contaminating the environment. With the corporation’s support, SBV managed to procure waste from the corporation and employ the ragpicker women for its segregation at a waste management centre established with help from the municipal corporation.
One of these women was twenty-five-year-old Poonam. She used to pick and sell waste from a dumping ground which has been closed for five years now. She is now working with SBV at their centre with a steady and secure source of income, and more workplace safety practices in place.
“Many societies generate waste that needs to be segregated. We do this at SBV’s plant. Our living conditions are much better now and SBV is also helping us get gas and electricity connections,” she says.
There are many women like Poonam who depend on waste for a living.
“Thane is a bustling city and solid waste management remains a huge challenge. We produce about 1000 tons of waste per day. Decentralized segregation and integrated waste management is the need of the hour. We partnered with SBV to set up an integrated waste management centre. We even use about one ton of briquettes per day produced by garden waste at this centre for our own TMC (Kalwa) hospital,” says Dr Vipin Sharma, Municipal Commissioner of the Thane Municipal Corporation.
At SBV’s waste management centre, different types of waste such as dry waste, floral waste and garden waste are segregated at a single location.
“It is an integrated approach to co-locate waste recycling of various types. It is known as the Project Revitalization with Reduce, Reuse, Recycle and Revitalize as its policy,” says Mr. Ulhas Karle, Director of SBV.
Spreading awareness on waste segregation at home
However, the centre did face several hurdles along the way in the beginning. One of them was that there was very little recyclable waste available due to contamination. This highlighted the problem that people were not in the habit of separating recyclable waste before disposing of it.
“We then decided to request people to segregate dry waste (plastic boxes, bags, metal etc.) separately for the women waste collectors and give it to them once a week. This, however, was an inconvenient task for most people,” says Karle.
Yet, a few people who were environmentally conscious or those who wanted to help the women came forward and agreed to segregate waste at their homes. “Initially it was just 10 to 12 people who would separate the waste for these women. Now after four and a half years we have convinced up to 1 lakh households who now save dry recyclable waste for ragpicker women for up to two weeks in their homes,” he adds.
Modernizing Waste Management for Scalability
This kind of escalation could not have been possible without the help of the Recycled Earth App, which was created in collaboration with SBV’s partner, Barking Deer Entertainment. While WhatsApp groups were being used to collect waste earlier, when the numbers increased, WhatsApp could not provide the necessary structure for managing the demand. The new Recycle Earth App allowed the team at SBV to schedule pickup of dry waste from different locations. Users of the app are notified about the location of the vehicle, ensuring smooth collection of waste.
In part thanks to the integration of technological tools, the centre was able to expand its services, and now manages several types of waste segregation and recycling – of plastic to polyfuel, garden waste to briuette, and flower waste to compost.
Making waste management beautiful
After having come all this way, SBV decided that it was time to change people’s perspective of waste – from something ‘dirty’ to something that’s valuable. They started redeveloping their waste management centre into an integrated centre where waste management awareness programmes are run, such as workshops, seminars, and face to face activities involving schools and colleges.
“As the initiative grew bigger, we didn’t want our centre to be seen as just a waste management centre but more of a knowledge hub - which is more aspirational. Therefore, we started with the idea of beautification of the centre, which was then done using waste itself,” says Karle.
The beautification was done by children who started visiting the centre over the weekends to watch, learn and spread awareness about waste management.
“I helped with the beautification of this place by painting pots and tyres. I learnt three important things – we should recycle waste, we should segregate waste, and we should save the Earth,” says 15-year-old Rashi Shah, who had visited the centre to learn about recycling.
Besides beautification, school children are also engaged in organizing the centre’s Scrap Library, which has a lot of e-waste and other items like monitors, artifacts, books, electronics, musical instruments and other scrap items donated by people. Children come and neatly organize and label these for future use.
Role of UNICEF
Maharashtra Urban WASH and Environmental Sanitation Coalition, established by UNICEF in collaboration with the Regional Centre for Urban and Environmental Studies (RCUES) of All India Institute of Local Self-Government (AIILSG) Mumbai where the Secretariat is anchored, is playing a key role in strengthening partnerships and advocating for greater collaboration towards shared goals defining access to water and sanitation services.
The coalition therefore facilitates and supports the work of key stakeholders like Samarth Bharat Vyaspeeth who are working in urban WASH and environmental sanitation in Maharashtra.
“The unscientific and untreated dumping of waste causes pathogens to enter water bodies and through them into our food systems. Sustained initiatives of Samarth Bharat Vyaspeeth in collaboration with Thane Municipal Corporation exemplifies the successful local partnerships and models to address such waste management issues,” says Utkarsha Kavadi, Director of the Secretariat.
Yusuf Kabir, WASH Specialist and DRR-CCES focal point of UNICEF Maharashtra, believes that we must hand over to the children and future generations what was handed over to us. “Waste management is not only an investment in our planet, but also an investment in our children and youth. With the launch of Swachh Bharat Mission, with the focus on developing ‘Garbage Free Cities’ in urban areas and improving solid and liquid waste management in rural areas, there is no doubt that waste management, especially plastic waste management, is becoming the key focus of the government, local administration, development organizations, and investors,” he explains.
UNICEF is committed to raising awareness amongst children and youth on source segregation, resource recovery, and circular economy with innovative approaches like plastic banks in schools. UNICEF Maharashtra, along with implementing partners like CACR and Blue Planet, has initiated a program covering 25,000 school children to incorporate sustainable learning into their daily life. Blue nudge is a simple yet effective behavioural technique for learners to use resources efficiently and earn a Planet Warrior Certification for their efforts in the collection of plastics. In return, schools get recycled school benches, garbage bins, and hand washing stations. At the same time, the Department of Environment and Climate Change, GoM, with technical support from UNICEF Maharashtra, CEE Pune and RCUES, Mumbai has developed an activity-based climate change and environment curriculum for lower and middle-primary schools under the Maharashtra State Board.
UNICEF is a key technical partner for the implementation of Swachh Bharat Mission and Jal Jeevan Mission across 15 states, in support of the Government of India. To read more about UNICEF’s work, please visit: