Sarasa Satish is a waste picker. Every morning, she starts promptly at 8:30 a.m. going door to door, collecting throwaway materials from houses in the Rajendra Nagar slums of Bangalore, India.
The neighborhood is crowded, with an average of about five people packed into each of its 4,000 households. Most are poor; some don't have running water. A typical workday ends with her sorting out the recyclable material once she's dumped the rejects, or non-recyclable waste. A few years ago, she would most likely have done that in a cramped alleyway.
But now she segregates the remaining plastics, paper and compostable material in a small neighborhood center built by CHF International, a humanitarian aid organization once called the Cooperative Housing Foundation. It has a large presence in developing countries.
There may be as many as 1.5 million waste pickers in India. Most make the equivalent of $2 a day. In Delhi, India's largest city, waste pickers reduce greenhouse gas emissions by nearly 1 million tons a year, according to Chintan, a Delhi-based non-governmental agency. Globally, there are estimated to be 15 million waste pickers working in developing countries.
Although they reduce energy use and related emissions through recycling, the fruits of their labors are often ignored. That's why some people refer to them as "invisible environmentalists."
In Bangalore, recycling isn't even regarded as a formal industry, even though the work is essential. Cities are rapidly expanding in India, but with city growth comes slum growth. India alone accounts for a third of the world's poor, people making less than $2 a day.
"One of the first experiences you have going into slum is the amount of trash," said Brian English, a CHF country director in India.
Bangalore produces more than 3,000 tons of waste each day. There are irregular and inefficient waste collection services. Among the rejects that waste pickers collect and have to dump, most are taken to unregulated dumps on the city's outskirts.
On top of working in an unrecognized industry, waste pickers usually come from lower Indian castes once officially regarded as "untouchables." Many are still unfairly stigmatized as thieves and low-lives.
With support from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and Caterpillar Foundation, CHF is attempting to turn their unofficial business into a professional market. The goal of the program, dubbed "Trash to Treasure," is to legitimize and build a recycling industry in Bangalore.
CHF opens large recycling center
In January, CHF opened Kasa Rasa, a 2,500-square-foot waste management facility that can process 1.5 tons of recyclable material each day. Meaning "from waste to resources," Kasa Rasa gets its waste from roughly 1,000 surrounding homes. At its center, recyclable waste is segregated and organic waste is composted. Both are then sold to recyclers.
CHF has also built two smaller centers, one where Satish works. English said these centers are the first of their kind in introducing a formal recycling system in Bangalore.
"Before, they had to segregate waste in a back alley or vacant lot," English said. "But now they have a legitimate space with toilets, shade and ventilation," among other amenities, he said.
Better business begins with the physical space provided by the centers. Informal waste pickers can only deal with as much material as they can carry in their sacks. They're further limited by the space they have to sort it out. The recycling centers give waste pickers more room to work, so they can sell more material and make a bigger wage.
The CHF centers purchase the recyclables at publicly listed prices.
The business model for "Trash to Treasure" is simple. The city provides the land, CHF uses money donated from Caterpillar and the Gates Foundation to buy the facilities, and the waste pickers' salaries are paid by two fees. One is a monthly fee from households for collecting waste and the other is from selling recyclables and organic waste to collectors.
Informal waste pickers usually only collect fees for selling the recyclables. On average, they make 100 rupees, or $2, a day. An extra household fee and a larger waste load help waste pickers under "Trash to Treasure" make about 250 rupees a day, English said. The CHF waste collection program totals around 250 collectors. Most of them are women.
CHF is pushing the local government to recognize waste pickers. It recently urged officials around Rajendra Nagar to enforce a law requiring residents to sort their waste and place it on their front stoops for the waste pickers. The law now applies to the resident welfare association, a segment of land within a city ward, where Satish collects waste every morning.
Finding 'treasure' in self-help
This year marks the second investment that the Caterpillar Foundation put toward the "Trash to Treasure" venture. It first spent about $229,000 for the program and recently spent $250,000 for the Kasa Rasa center. Globally, its investment into CHS added up to $1.1 million in 2009 and 2010, which also contributed to flood cleanup efforts in Pakistan and school upgrades in Lebanon.
Part of the industrial equipment manufacturer's support of the Bangalore program lies in the company's large presence in India. Will Ball, vice president of Caterpillar Foundation, was part of a group that has visited some of the slums.
"I went and had opportunity to see enormous, grinding poverty that some in India live under," Ball said. He sees the investment as a way to bring pride to the people in the slum communities. One potential effect of picking up waste is a lower incidence of diseases in the community, he said.
The Gates Foundation also invested a significant amount, adding up to about $500,000 total.
While much of this money goes to legitimizing the industry, the Bangalore program also organizes the waste pickers.
Before Satish collected waste, she would have to travel miles away from her slum to do housekeeping. When she became a waste collector under the CHF program, it offered her a few things the last job couldn't. For one, she was closer to her child. But she also got to take part in a self-help group. More than 80 women from "Trash to Treasure" are involved in such groups.
The self-help groups give the women a chance to address problems ranging from preventing abuse at home to managing their daily finances. Each one includes about 10 women who pool 100 rupees in a revolving fund. The fund can be drawn from by any member for necessary needs like health costs. English estimates that these funds have helped the workers save a total of a couple thousand dollars a year, a significant amount for people making as little as these women do.
How Satish got to be president
"Trash to Treasure" also established Parivarthana, meaning "change," which allows Satish and the other women working in Rajendra Nagar to organize themselves. Satish meets with 15 other women about once a month to strategize their work plan. Half of them collect waste, while the other half recycle paper in a center at nearby Christ University. With a hired consultant, the women map out and vote on work plans.
Recently, Satish's group worried that they had too many households to collect waste from. They each averaged 215 homes a day. They voted to up the ante to 275 and decided to penalize no-shows and late arrivers. Satish said voting on decisions like these empowers her. It has also solidified her role in the group. She was recently elected its president.
CHF is by no means the only group trying to give waste pickers a voice. Last fall, many groups, including the Alliance of Indian Wastepickers, a network of organizations working with the laborers, brought several waste pickers to testify at a U.N.-sponsored climate change panel in China.
They each spoke about the work they did and the conditions and difficulties they face. In many areas, private contractors are pushing to take over their work and hiring their own people, English said.
"It was powerful to see people going from the absolute bottom of the food chain to the international arena," English said. "They get marginalized, they get boxed out. They want recognition as workers."
For its part, Caterpillar Foundation will keep funding the program as long as it sees that the program is continuing to grow. CHF has plans to set up three more dry recycling centers in the city.
"We'll have to measure the success and see the program expand to see other U.S. multinationals and local Indian companies take interest," Ball said.