Building partnerships to improve plastic waste management in India

5 Oct 2019

The Revaluing Plastics team from 2019’s Leadership Vanguard cohort travelled to Chennai and Bangalore to explore and advance strategic partnerships with two local impact enterprises, Kabadiwalla Connect and Hasiru Dala Innovations. The organisations both champion innovative strategies for managing plastic waste in Indian cities. 

The trip was part of the Leadership Vanguard's Revaluing plastics theme, supported by Unilever, aiming to explore the systemic problems that underpin plastic waste management, and collaborate with impact enterprises with innovative solutions to help them scale.

The trip represented an opportunity to engage with community leaders, waste pickers, educators and city planners to understand the challenge on a systems level. This newfound insight into the systemic waste problems allowed the Vanguard participants - leaders from HSBC, BASF, EDP, BHGE, Tata Group, Unilever, Shell, Mastercard and the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) – could play a meaningful role in strengthening and supporting the scale of the impactful solutions they saw in India’s sixth biggest city.

This is the Revaluing Plastic team’s second field trip to India of the year – in April they travelled to Bangalore to learn about plastic waste management and engage with local  impact enterprises as part of the exploration phase of the Leadership Vanguard programme. 

Leveraging existing informal waste infrastructure

On the first day in Chennai, the leaders spent two days building a relationship with an award-winning start-up, Kabadiwalla Connect.

Leadership Vanguard
The leaders spent time with Kabadiwalla Connect to advance strategic partnerships.

The organisation is deploying digital solutions including mapping and tracking to integrate the vast, informal network of waste pickers and recycling collectors (‘kabadiwallas’) into hyperlocal reverse-logistics solutions, making the recovery of post-consumer waste effective and inclusive.

The goal is not only to improve the livelihoods of waste pickers by providing access to safety, health insurance, and more stable incomes, but also to vastly increase the amount of recyclable waste that is collected and processed in the city (which produces 5000 tonnes of waste every day).

The Vanguard team visited Kabadiwalla Connect’s street kiosks, which use digital apps to process recyclable material delivered by waste pickers, who scour it from city streets, bins and apartment complex throughout the city. The team also got a firsthand look at one of KC’s “Urbins,” recyclables collection points that use radar tech to alert waste pickers when they are full. Each Urbin now collects 4 tonnes of recyclable plastic every month. 

Leadership Vanguard in Chennai
The leaders joined a local beach cleaning team in Chennai.

The team spent its second day in Chennai at Kovalam beach, where they undertook a beach cleaning exercise and met with a range of stakeholders who are driving short-term and long-term solutions in the battle against waste. The local stakeholder group contained nature photographers, ecologists, small business owners, and leaders in sports and the arts. The Vanguard catalysts found it incredibly inspiring to hear from change agents at every level of the system and understand that there’s an important role for just about every sector to play in a lasting solution. 

Transforming the lives of waste pickers

Next, the team travelled to Bangalore to spend two days building its partnership strategy with Hasiru Dala Innovations, a Bangalore-based organisation transforming the lives of waste pickers.

Leadership Vanguard
The Leadership Vanguard team explored how Hasiru Dala works to improve the lives of waste pickers.

Hasiru Dala has separate enterprise and not-for-profit units, and the Vanguard group interacted with both teams to understand their systemic approach and where Vanguard partners could add scale.

For instance, on the enterprise side, the Vanguard team is adding its expertise from value chains to improve Hasiru Dala’s delivery process to global clients who are purchasing the recycled plastics collected for use in their packaging.  

With the not-for-profit team, Vanguard catalysts are refining how Hasiru Dala measures its social impact by improving its metrics for how it measures improvements in the livelihoods of waste pickers. 

Such insights will not only make it easier for Hasiru Dala to get the funding needed for scale, but also to refine its services to the waste picker community.

The highlight of the Bangalore trip was an afternoon sitting down with several waste pickers in Hasiru Dala’s network and learning about their daily work, their hopes, and their worries. Many waste pickers work from dawn to walk for miles across town collecting recyclable waste, while also finding time for second jobs or to care for their families.  

Waste picking is an easy job to get into for migrants or other marginalised groups as there are no formal barriers to entry, and several waste pickers were quick to say they enjoy the work and the money earned. But they also worry that changing policies and formalisation of the sector will put them out of work – which would also challenge the city’s ability to collect tonnes of recyclable material from the streets.

With two months left in this year’s Vanguard program, the teams now have clarity on how each of them can lend their expertise and mentoring to boost the innovative solutions at Kabadiwalla Connect and Hasiru Dala Innovations and connect them with the right partners for scale. Both organisations have pioneered incredible ways to tap into the power of the informal sector to reduce waste and improve livelihoods – approaches that have the potential to be applied not only throughout India but in other regions globally. 

This blog is authored by Xynteo’s Cole Paulson, and Mita Broca, theme lead of the Revaluing Plastics team.

Read more stories from the Leadership Vanguard here.