Surviving on the Scraps: Mapping Bangalore's Waste Management Crisis
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Recyclables – varieties of paper, plastic, and metal – have real value and the returns are immediate. These short-term payoffs and low barriers to entry have attracted many people to the informal waste sector, causing fierce competition for the seemingly unlimited amount of waste that Bangalore generates.

Vinita is a working mother. Nurturing her three month-old son is a full-time job, especially since her husband is inept and unable to work. She manages a dry waste collection center (DWCC), which is a government-built facility for collecting and sorting recyclable waste from the nearby areas of central Bangalore. The center is packed with unsorted waste – stitched jute bags bursting with mixed plastic items, cardboard stacked to the ceiling. The rag pickers whom she employs to sort the waste are often intoxicated and only work when they need some money to sustain themselves. To make matters worse, gundas – criminals who bully rag pickers and disrupt the market for solid waste – have kidnapped three of her workers in the past few months for reasons unknown to Vinita.

Two NGOs are claiming to support her. Although these organizations were responsible for getting Vinita her job of managing the DWCC, in reality they simply gave her the arduous task of entering transactions into their respective ledgers for "data collection purposes", and at present offer little operational support. Having been a informal scrap dealer for several years, Vinita was looking forward to moving to the formal waste management sector, which would liberate her from police harassment, a cramped workspace and scheming landlords, while also allowing her to receive higher volumes of valuable waste. However, she is now disillusioned by the stress of managing the DWCC and keeping it financially afloat. Her center is receiving mostly low-value waste, which is tedious to sort and yields little margins, because a nearby informal scrap shop is offering more attractive compensation to rag pickers and waste workers for lucrative materials.

Vinita's story is real and her set of challenges captures a few of the many that Bangalore's waste entrepreneurs – scrap dealers, DWCC workers, waste aggregators, and recyclers – face on a daily basis. She operates between the informal and the formal sectors and in an environment that is both competitive and complex. Her horizon of opportunity and the difficulties she faces are a result of failures – on the part of the government, market, society and social sector – in the urban environment in which she operates. Broadly put, rapid and unplanned urbanization created a vacuum that enabled Bangalore's waste management system to take its amorphic shape. A major constituency in this system is the informal sector – a large proportion of the urban population that is unable to share in the fruits of India's economic progress, so they survive on the scraps. The informal sector's existence and sustainability derives from the inherent value of solid waste material as a reusable resource, combined with the limited capacity of the municipal government to manage the city's high volumes of garbage. The mixture of informal, private, public and social sector actors who are all pursuing their unique self-interest has resulted in a system in crisis.

Bangalore generates over 3500 tons of waste per day, roughly 65% of which gets collected and dumped in landfills on the outskirts of the city. 30% is salvaged recyclable material, which gets picked-up and processed by both informal and formal recycling streams. The remaining waste gets dumped in storm drains or swept up into piles and burned. The Bangalore municipal corporation (BBMP) operates scheduled waste pickups in most areas of the city, however their capacity is limited in streamlining and policing the collection and disposal of waste. Due mostly to the increasing disposal needs of urban households, people often throw their trash in piles on roadsides where one can find cattle and rag pickers grazing side-by-side. The cattle are hunting for vegetable scraps and left-over food, often times ingesting the plastic bags that contain them, while rag pickers sift through unsorted waste in search of salvageable materials that they can sell to scrap dealers. The remaining waste gets scooped up, put in a truck and sent to landfills or ends up in the sewers and canals that run through the city.

One challenge the government faces in managing the city's waste is poor infrastructure for collecting and transporting waste, making these activities piecemeal and human-intensive. Another obstacle is the indiscretion of the urban population and the lack of public accountability and enforcement on them to segregate and dispose of waste properly. These difficulties are compounded by the fact that the municipal government cannot keep pace with Bangalore's burgeoning and unplanned urban growth. It is difficult to establish infrastructure, systems and enforcement for waste management as the city grows. The failure of the municipality to holistically manage the city's waste has brought the informal, private and public sectors in a symbiosis. The informal sector capitalizes on the valuable waste material that formal streams are unable or too slow to capture.

Recyclables—varieties of paper, plastic, and metal—have real value and the returns are immediate. These short-term payoffs and low barriers to entry have attracted many people to the informal waste sector, causing fierce competition for the seemingly unlimited amount of waste that the city generates. Their survival in the market depends on their ingenuity in accessing streams of valuable solid waste. This is where personal relationships come in handy. Most informal waste businesses are family-run and operate mainly by building loyalty with local residents, businesses and other informal waste collectors. These market conditions also explain the existence of gundas, or criminals, who further disrupt the smooth functioning of the recyclables value chain by distorting prices and harassing other waste workers. The populous and deeply embedded informal sector serves a crucial role in the waste management system, but its informality makes it vulnerable.

NGOs and social enterprises have cropped up to address the livelihood challenges and inefficiencies of the informal waste sector. In Vinita's case, there are two organizations that are purporting to support her, yet neither has invested time to hear and address her most pressing concerns. The redundancy and ineffectiveness of work in the waste space is exacerbated by an aversion to collaboration that these organizations seem to have. One reason for this phenomenon is that it is easy to clearly show social and environmental impact in solid waste management schemes, which has made it easy for NGOs in the sector to attract funds from grant-making organizations. Recently, those funds have been put towards formalizing the informal waste workers by providing them with identification cards and employing them in DWCCs, for which they get contracts from the government to operate. However, the DWCC model has proven to be financially unsustainable because of the vigorous competition for streams of high-value solid waste and, as Vinita's story reveals, operational difficulties. Identification cards have done little to improve the legitimacy of informal waste workers, as they were intended to.

There are many un-integrated stakeholders and processes that comprise Bangalore's waste management system. Households are looking to get rid of their waste and expect the government to handle it once it leaves their doorstep. The government cannot possibly collect all of the city's garbage, yet it's unwilling to impose and enforce simple measures, like waste segregation, on citizens and businesses to help streamline collection. Informal waste entrepreneurs are trying to survive in a competitive market for materials that can yield them high margins. NGOs and social enterprises have yet to come up with a scalable intervention that addresses the livelihood and operational challenges of waste workers.

With all of the cross-cutting and self-defeating factors that dictate how waste is treated and perceived, how can Bangalore forge a waste management system that protects and promotes the livelihoods of the stakeholders involved, while also streamlining the collection and processing of all waste streams? Efforts to address the waste management crisis in Bangalore must focus on building a solution that holds citizens accountable for segregating their waste at its source. The extensive network of informal waste workers and entrepreneurs must also be integrated into the system for their indispensible role in capturing and recycling solid waste. Finally, building the capacity of entrepreneurs like Vinita and making it easier for citizens to dispose of their waste are crucial steps that need to be taken now for Bangalore to be a cleaner and more resource-efficient city.

Mike Johnson received a BA in development studies from Brown University in 2013. He recently served as an American India Foundation William J. Clinton Fellow at Daily Dump in Bangalore where he worked on promoting sustainable urban waste management practices. He is now based in Bangalore working for Babajob, a job portal catered to informal sector workers.