Waste Pickers and EPR in India

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Sangeeta Ben walks her daily route working as a waste picker in an Ahmedabad slum
Published Date
Roopa Madhav

The idea of Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) as part of a circular economy transfers the responsibility of waste management from municipal authorities to the producers of the waste materials, supported by recyclers and retailers. Yet, despite the important role that informal economy workers who collect and segregate waste could play in such a system, they get no mention in India’s EPR policy. This blog explores steps that could be taken towards their inclusion, so as to protect their livelihoods within the shifting system.

As environmental workers, waste pickers provide an extraordinary service in terms of gathering, sorting and reclaiming materials that would otherwise be discarded in landfills. Yet, they are rarely considered within policy and regulatory conversations. In the absence of engagement, the International Alliance of Waste Pickers (IAWP) has identified a lack of focus on the livelihood concerns of workers involved in plastic and solid waste management, and in value chains of plastic production and recycling, as only the economic and ecological aspects are mentioned in the majority of the EPR policies and frameworks.

EPR and plastic pollution

Over the years, plastic pollution has soared – adding to climate change and the resulting loss of biodiversity ­– and its global production is now valued at $522.6 billion. Harmful effects of plastics are well-documented: exposure to plastics harm human health, the burning of plastics contributes to air pollution, and ingestion of plastics by animals and marine species is a real threat to the ecosystem.

In a circular economy, materials are reused or recycled, moving from a linear production model to a circular one. Creating a sustainable economy, however, requires the creation of just jobs and green jobs that support the nearly 20 million workers in the waste sector. It is estimated that, as of 2015, about 6300 Mt of plastic waste was produced, of which nearly 80 per cent was accumulated in landfills or the natural environment. Local bodies have found it difficult to manage the plastic waste and waste pickers have played an integral part in the waste management system. The EPR mechanism holds producers responsible for reducing plastic pollution but only involves large recycling units, bypassing an entire workforce responsible for transformation of waste to recyclable material. In this context, we need to rethink the formulation of EPR norms, while at the same time raise the question of how to integrate waste pickers into the new legal framework.

In March 2022, representatives from 175 countries endorsed a historic UN Environment Assembly resolution to put an end to plastic pollution and to draft a legally binding international agreement – a Plastics Treaty – by 2024. Speaking at the United Nations Environment Assembly in Nairobi, Soledad Mella representing the IAWP, at that time called Global Alliance of Waste Pickers, addressed waste pickers’ apprehensions about the treaty: “We are the face of recycling in the world, we are the hands that clean the world, we are the real heroes of the planet and nothing you try to do without recyclers is going to work.”

EPR in India                        

In India, the regulation of plastics falls under the Environment Protection Act of 1986. The Ministry of Environment and Forest & Climate Change, the nodal ministry that administers the EPA, has issued several rules under the enactment to handle issues pertaining to plastic manufacturing, usage, handling and its management. These include:

  • The Recycled Plastics Manufacture and Usage Rules, 1999;
  • The Plastic Waste Management Rules, 2016 which superseded the Plastic Waste (Management and Handling) Rules, 2011.

Despite these regulations, a 2015 Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) report notes that between 2010 and 2012 India generated 25,940 MT of plastic waste per day, of which nearly 40 per cent remained uncollected, thus clogging drains, polluting water sources and contaminating land.

In 2016, Guidelines on Extended Producer Responsibility for plastic packaging were issued. In February 2022, these were amended to expedite the elimination of single-use plastic. The new guidelines permit the sale and purchase of surplus EPR certificates, thus allowing for a trade mechanism to evolve within the plastic management system.

The guidelines provide a framework to strengthen a circular economy of plastic packaging waste, promote the development of new alternatives to plastics, and provide further next steps for moving towards sustainable plastic packaging by businesses. The guidelines do not lay down the approach to be taken for compliance with the law but encourages producers, importers and brand owners to adopt models that best suit them. These range from a deposit refund system to buy back models and any other model that incentivizes the segregation and collection of plastic waste. While the flexibility provided by the guidelines allows for industry/producer innovation in tackling waste, it does not incentivize the integration of waste pickers and itinerant buyers in existing linear models so as to protect livelihoods. The guidelines envision a parallel system for collection of plastic waste and create a possibility of large scale displacement of existing actors in the recycling value chain  – waste-pickers being the first and foremost.

EPR, the circular economy and waste pickers: Integrating the green army

A long-standing demand of organizations, member-based organizations and unions working within the waste and recycling sector is to integrate waste pickers into EPR structures. But the first step should be to recognize waste pickers in law and policy as legitimate workers in the waste sector.

While recognition is a key aspect that the guidelines must address, two other ways to rethink the waste pickers engagement with the EPR regime are: (i) to rethink the Producer Responsibility Organisation (PRO) mechanism to include waste-pickers and other workers in informal waste recycling sector as social and solidarity economy collectives and (ii) to educate and engage with the producers to incentivize waste pickers and other informal waste collectors in their efforts to manage the waste stream.

Waste picker collectives as Social and Solidarity Economy Cooperatives

Within the EPR mechanism, the PROs play an active role in managing the recycling stream on behalf of the producers and the scheme provides an opportunity for waste collectors and iterant buyers to be included within the EPR system by registering as PROs.

The experience of successful waste picker cooperatives, such as SWACH in India, provides a roadmap for building and managing an efficient interface with waste picker cooperatives as part of the waste stream, including working with producers within the EPR regime. Waste picker cooperatives and other member based organizations could be incentivized through training and the creation of markets to add value through recycling or other modes of diversification to enhance their outputs and to build a better revenue stream, thus supporting livelihoods in the sector. As a part of the just transition model, the green jobs solution needs an integrated approach from the local authorities, national government, producer organizations and waste picker cooperatives. Successful experiments within the plastics stream could then be extended to other waste streams, such as e-waste and food waste.

Producer education and engagement for inclusive systems

Under the EPR system, the Indian government has initiated a range of training programmes to enhance the producer engagement, but these do not focus on building a dialogue with existing stakeholders within the waste stream. It may be worthwhile for civil society organizations, unions and member-based organizations to build networks that enable producer engagement and dialogue in a bid to create an inclusive system.

Rethinking the EPR policy framework to allow for greater inclusion of all existing stakeholders and anchored by local municipal authorities is the way forward. Innovations that producer organizations envisage to comply with their obligations under the guidelines should also include social and solidarity economy cooperatives as potential alternative organisations that support livelihoods of waste pickers and itinerant buyers of municipal waste.

Top photo: Sangeeta Ben walks her daily route working as a waste picker in an Ahmedabad, India. She provides an essential door-to-door collection service for 240 households and a hospital in the neighbourhood. Credit: Paula Bronstein/Getty Images Reportage
Informal Economy Topic
Occupational group
Informal Economy Theme