What's next for India’s waste-pickers amid COVID-19?

An opportunity to create social and economic welfare throughout the waste value chain

What if infected waste from your home and community wasn’t collected for three days, a week, or even a month – what would you do? 

As COVID-19 cases accelerate in the Global South, it’s becoming abundantly clear that people already in vulnerable socio-economic positions are being exposed to the highest risks - whether people are in remote indigenous communities or informal sector workers in megacities. The waste picker communities that provide essential sanitation and waste management services in many countries already occupy precarious livelihoods at the undervalued end of the supply chain. The pandemic has hit these frontline workers hard, putting both their health and livelihoods at grave risk.

To understand the situation, we caught up with 2019 Leadership Vanguard impact entrepreneurs at Hasiru Dala Innovations (HDI). HDI is at the forefront of ensuring that Bangalore’s often marginalised waste pickers can improve their livelihoods, live with dignity and enjoy safer working conditions. Leadership Vanguard participants working on the systemic challenge of ‘Revaluing Plastics’ partnered with HDI last year to provide strategic interventions to scale its impact. They focused specifically on Hasiru Plastic, a ‘fair trade recycled plastic initiative’ by HDI, which aims to create a fair and stable pricing supply chain that integrates waste-pickers into a circular economy model to provide them with a fair and predictable income.

Since forming this partnership, much has changed. The pandemic has highlighted the fragility of the waste management supply chain, especially in countries like India where a significant part of the activities happen within the informal sector. To better understand the problem and the role of business in this particular crisis, we spoke with HDI co-founder Shekar Prabhakar and Leadership Vanguard Catalyst Barbara Scala, Unilever.


Excluded but essential                                                                                                                                                                                   

Lockdown measures in India have been underway since 24th of March. Though waste removal and segregation/recycling are treated as an essential service, the mechanisms of how the waste management system works has made it very difficult to continue undisturbed.  

Truckload of mixed PET plastic arrives at the HDI aggregation centre for sorting and baling

Shekar shared the impact COVID has had on the waste sector and the waste pickers whose livelihoods depend on it. Even though collection of waste from residential complexes continued during the lockdown period, recyclables including plastic were not able to move up the supply chain for processing due to the complete shut-down of the rest of the value chain. This hit the waste pickers hard, who were unable to sell the waste they were able to collect. In addition to this, decreasing oil prices have made virgin plastic cheaper than recycled plastic, hammering demand and damaging the entire recycling industry. Falling prices for recycled plastic are passed on down the chain to the most vulnerable - the waste pickers who make up the first mile of collection.

Free-roaming waste pickers have been the worst hit by the crisis. Unable to step out to collect waste from the streets or landfills during the lockdown, they lost the only means of their daily earnings. Those that risked their safety and still managed to venture out out didn’t find much waste littered on the roads and even if they did, they could not sell further to scrap dealers as they were shut down.

Being on the frontline, these waste pickers who provide the essential service of collecting waste are also extremely vulnerable to health risks. Handling waste that is mixed with used tissues, masks and gloves exposes them to greater chances of infection.

Woman wastepicker
Shamim Taj employed by HDI sorting PET at the aggregation centre


Build back better                                                                                                                                                                                              

We cannot afford to let the situation worsen for the plastic waste management sector and for the thousands whose livelihoods depend on it. Will the COVID-19 crisis be a catalyst for an equitable circular economy or an excuse to backslide into the linear, take-make-waste model that has generated oceans of plastic waste?

As societies grapple with the shape of the recovery from this crisis, leaders face a decisive moment. This is an opportunity for greater ambition and deeper collaboration between governments, companies and civil society to transform waste management systems and create dignified livelihoods, not least for marginalised waste pickers. 

We know that plastic packaging and waste will still be a huge feature of businesses’ social license to operate, particularly as the problems they generate are deepening through the crisis. Coronavirus has left China with mountains of medical waste with Wuhan alone producing six times more medical waste than usual, majorly consisting of discarded PPE. In India and Myanmar, it has almost doubled post-COVID.

Kolkia and Sumati
L-R: Sumathi and Kokila, free roaming wastepickers supported by Hasiru Dala share their hopes and aspirations 

Companies such as The Body Shop and Unilever have understood the challenge and reaffirmed their commitment to ethical recycling of plastics, with Unilever working towards creating a circular economy for plastic and taking a marked step forward with their new net-zero emissions goals for products and Climate & Nature fund, an initiative through which all brands under the Unilever umbrella will invest €1billion in the future of the planet. “We have the opportunity to create a more equitable business model that creates social and economic welfare throughout the value chain including waste pickers. We need to take action now.” concluded Barbara. 

The hopeful words of Kokila and Sumathi, two of the wastepickers supported by HDI, -‘with the support of a small price premium, our livelihoods are transformed, allowing us to send our children to school. We don't want them to follow us into waste picking. We want to be the last generation of waste pickers. Perhaps with good education combined with our experience, they could become respectable waste management entrepreneurs’ - are a stark reminder for us to build back better, stepping up the focus on investing in building sustainable value chains we need for the recycling sector and for all those people that depend on it.


For more on Shekar and Nalini’s inspiring and transformational work with HDI, listen to Nalini sharing their work with waste pickers on ‘Trash Talk’: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=r3dqz090tzA

For on the ground diary insights from the waste pickers during lockdown: https://wastenarratives.com/2020/05/21/lockdown-diaries-relief-to-the-waste-pickers-in-the-times-of-the-pandemic/