Faculty and students explore the systems of waste management in India, and the lives of the informal workers who make those systems run.
Pune, situated in the Deccan Plain about 100 miles from Mumbai, is one of the largest cities in India. Here, as in cities throughout the developing world, entire strata of society support themselves by working as waste pickers, salvaging recyclable materials from landfills and dump sites and selling them to traders.
These workers are informal, meaning they have no officially recognized employment status, and in some cases their livelihoods are, technically speaking, illegal. Waste picking can be hazardous, difficult, and unremunerative work. Yet most cities in India do not have comprehensive waste collection resources, so waste picking provides a community service and a means of survival for millions of people.
Researchers from the MIT Tata Center traveled to Pune to explore this ecosystem with SWaCH, a waste pickers’ co-operative. SWaCH organizes self-employed waste pickers and has been authorized by the city of Pune to provide waste collection services to residents of the city. The goal is not only better waste management but a more protected and dignified environment for front-line waste workers.
However, SWaCH is the first organization of its kind in India. The Tata Center Waste Innovation Group wants to know if a suite of solutions can be created to improve waste management nationwide. Faculty Jeremy Gregory, Randolph Kirchain, and Libby McDonald were joined by Tata Fellows Kate Mytty and Rachel Perlman for a workshop with representatives of SWaCH, local scholars and activists, and members of Pune’s waste picker community.
Video by Darren Alexander Cole.