Women pick through a pile of waste

View from India: Technology, enabler for waste management

Image credit: Jeremy Richards-Dreamstime

Technology can give a value-add to waste management in terms of accuracy and efficiency.

Waste pickers rank lowest in the category of waste picking, sorting and segregating. They lack social security and are mostly unbanked. Over 15 million people earn livelihood through the informal sector, which is critical to the waste management space. “It’s essential to build trust and adopt a collaborative approach towards waste collection. Technology is the enabler. For instance, the mobile app can be leveraged for monitoring the waste collection in smart bins. Alerts, with real time updates will hasten the process. The fact that these workers can use mobile technology for their work itself may be a reckoner,” said Sandeep Patel, CEO, and NEPRA, at the CII webinar on Waste Management through Social Inclusion.

Technology can be tapped to detect the precise quantity of waste generated. What is often done manually in the form of approximate gauging could happen through tech tools. Robots could help in the process of sorting or segregating waste. Artificial intelligence (AI), advanced cameras, sensors and robotics can sort out plastic waste. Wherever possible automation can be used for scale and to measure the volume of plastic waste that has been collected.  

With technological interventions, the value chain of the waste pickers’ activity can probably go up. This could bring a significant shift in the system; it may improve the pace at which waste is collected and segregated. But that brings us to another issue: whether the waste pickers are competent enough to follow app-based activities and whether they can use them effectively. It’s not a bad idea if this community use vernaculars to spread word online about their work. It may not be easy, but through handholding, probably it may get close to this.

Technology can be tapped to make processes visible, uniform and efficient. Trucks or fleet services equipped with GPS can probably help public waste management companies track the vehicle (as vehicles are tracked in the logistics sector).

Besides the digital transformation of the waste sector, waste pickers themselves can give a value-add to the process. As Pashas Band, director, Organic Recycling, put it, “Waste pickers know waste collection and understand the way waste is collected and sorted out. It is likely that many of them can segregate waste and become suppliers to the recycling units; or even start recycling units. ” It could also be an opportunity for them to learn e-billing and e-operations. Now this is something that could be pursued. 

Extended Producer Responsibility or EPR can support the informal sector. In that sense, it is a significant opportunity for building a holistic value chain, which could contribute to the circular economy. Whatever income it earns could be passed on to the waste picker to improve their living conditions. And this is something many companies follow. Take the case of Godrej & Boyce Mfg. Co. Ltd, whose presence in Mumbai is in a mixed use development (MUD) premises. “We evaluated the issue of waste management in our campus. That’s when we realised that around 10 tonnes of waste is generated from the campus almost every day. The company decided to engage waste pickers, around 40-45 of them to collect the waste, differentiate it and pass it on to recyclers, whereby waste pickers are paid for their efforts,” added Tejashree Joshi, deputy general manager for environment and sustainability at Godrej & Boyce.

Recycling apps can also be integrated into the system. The entire waste collection process needs to be institutionalised, and this has happened by integrating waste pickers with waste collection managers. EPR has been introduced so that a certain value is created for the waste picker’s efforts. It would be great if EPR is scaled up across states and union territories and linked with waste pickers. The economic value of waste needs to be conveyed to the masses through campaigns, social media and awareness programmes.

Fair wages are essential for all as much as health, access to sanitation and safety. “Waste pickers represent a vulnerable section of society. Our vision is to create a better life for them through sustainable measures. Sustainability can be understood as gender equality, inclusivity and job opportunities for all. Many of the waste pickers are getting bank accounts, as financial inclusion of the low-income group is essential. As an organisation we encourage women’s empowerment and bring them to the mainstream,” observed Shagufta Nahid, IKEA development centre manager. From a gender perspective, women are marginalised in the waste picker segment. They need to voice themselves, and assert their position in the waste picking process. Emancipation could be the way ahead.

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