Academic circles rarely talk enough about waste and its proper disposal, particularly Indian academia. But it is clearly a growing problem, particularly in urban areas where population growth and changing consumer habits have overwhelmed antiquated systems. Unfortunately, when academics do discuss the subcontinent’s trash problem, an oft-recommended solution is waste-to-energy plants. This solution has worked well in some European countries, particularly Germany. However, one has to realise that waste-to-energy plants are entirely wrong for India.

Environmental advocates regularly speak out against waste-to-energy, terming it hazardous and polluting, but even that is not the most important argument in the Indian context. These plants threaten the livelihood of India’s waste pickers - members of society that dig through trash to find recyclables to sell to eke out a living. In India, there are hundreds of thousands - possibly even more than a million - living and working as waste pickers. Women in Informal Employment: Globalizing and Organizing (WIEGO) estimates that there are more than 100,000 waste pickers in Delhi alone. Waste-to-energy plants quite literally burn their livelihood.

A meeting with waste collectors on selection of feeder points. Pic: Saroj Badgujar

A more appropriate solution then would be one that considers the problem of waste, responds to city-budget constraints and also makes use of the abundant manpower in India. A sustainable solution examines environmental, social and political aspects, as well as considers the views of those involved, including citizens, corporations, scrap buyers and waste pickers. It is with this understanding that Pune, the ninth largest city in India according to the 2011 Census, embarked on a zero-garbage initiative in its largest ward. The Zero Garbage Ward project, operating for more than a year now, has turned into a model for sustainable waste management that could be replicated throughout India and much of the developing world.

The waste pickers of Katraj have been among the other obvious beneficiaries. The project makes a dramatic improvement in their lives. Not only do the wages of waste pickers increase under this system, so does their value in society.

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Zero Garbage Ward

The initial objective of the Zero Garbage Ward was to create value out of waste. But in reality it represented a paradigm shift in how citizens, businesses and the municipal authority view waste. Instead of seeing waste as disposable, the project defined waste as a renewable, even valuable resource.

The idea behind “zero waste” was that waste would be collected and disposed within the ward’s boundaries, reducing the need for landfills. Current dumping grounds outside the city of Pune have wreaked serious environmental havoc and endangered the people that live near them, which served as a catalyst for the zero-waste initiative. Pune-based Janwani, the social initiative of the Mahratta Chamber of Commerce, Industries and Agriculture (MCCIA), conceived and facilitated the project and was supported by the Pune Municipal Corporation (PMC), Solid Waste Collection and Handling (SWaCH) - waste pickers’ cooperative, corporate sponsor Cummins India Ltd., Maharashtra Plastic Manufacturers’ Association and others.

Project administrators chose the ward of Katraj as the test ward as it is the largest in the city in terms of population and geographic size; in a way it may be said to be a microcosm of Pune. More than 55,000 people reside in Katraj, spread out among the various types of housing - from slums to residential societies and bungalows. According to a survey undertaken by MITCON Institute of Management, nearly 49 per cent of Katraj’s residents live in chawls or slums while citywide, approximately 43 per cent of the population lives in slums (Slum Rehabilitation Authority).

The beauty of the Zero Garbage Ward model is its simplicity, its technical feasibility and its reliance on all stakeholders with concerns in the waste-management arena. The indicators of success are both definable and measurable. It requires 100 per cent segregation of trash between wet (organic) and dry (inorganic) waste, 100 per cent door-to-door collection, and proper and separate disposal of the two types of waste. It is a decentralized waste management system, requiring households to pay a user-fee (Rs. 1 per day) for the doorstep-collection service.

The model relies heavily on the SWaCH Co-op and its 2,000-strong waste picker membership. SWaCH is the first cooperative wholly owned by waste pickers in India. It is a public-private partnership that regularizes the role of informal workers in trash collection and provides the city with a more sustainable path for waste management. In the Zero Garbage Ward model, SWaCH members collect waste door-to-door, instead of in large community waste containers. The earnings of the waste pickers increase in two ways: first through user-fee collection and secondly, in the form of the increased selling price they get for recyclables, because dry waste is segregated from rotting organic waste.

The project, however, also puts more pressure on waste pickers to provide daily service, on-time performance and overall professionalism. Presently, not all waste pickers deliver organic waste to the biogas plant, as suggested by the model. In some parts of the test ward, PMC vehicles continue to collect the wet waste at various collection points and deliver it to disposal plants.

The Project Director addresses chairmen and secretaries of various societies in Katraj. Pic: Saroj Badgujar

Building Awareness

Despite the simplicity of the project, it still requires the dedication of staff, especially because of the difficulty in altering people’s habits. This is especially true for waste handling by residents and small businesses. The staff and volunteers spent a significant amount of time building awareness and educating the public.

Education was a vital factor in the success of the Zero Garbage Ward. PMC, with the help of Janwani, developed a Quality Manual outline processes of the project, which was later approved for ISO certification - the first waste management system to receive that honour in India. The processes described in the manual were then used to train waste pickers on the new system and integrated into door-to-door collection.

Waste pickers of this area were trained in a variety of ways - through monthly meetings, daily interaction between the Janwani-appointed volunteers and the waste pickers, and even professional puppet shows that generated awareness on collection and segregation. Project coordinators too enacted role-play scenarios with the waste workers to help them better understand the project and potential issues that may come up.

Residents in the area, too, needed to learn how to segregate wet and dry waste. Without an understanding or buy-in from the residents, the project would be dead on arrival. Janwani and partners used traditional media as well as innovative techniques in their outreach campaign. Volunteers from Cummins India marched through the streets of Katraj and met with neighbours, handed out charts to explain segregation. Public events were held in Katraj on waste segregation.

A puppet show to spread awareness. Pic: Saroj Badgujar


One of the key features of the Zero Garbage Ward initiative - as an attractive alternative to the current failing systems of waste management in Indian cities - has been overall sustainability through its environmental, health, economic and social impacts. It also takes into account the Indian context, recognizing that a million workers - mostly women - make a living off trash and that it is far better to recycle materials than to burn them.

At its heart, it is also a policy that has improved the lives of Punekars because it reduces environmental degradation at landfills and improves the overall cleanliness within the city. Mixed waste sent to landfills is highly dangerous, as the organic waste rots and releases methane gas into the air and leachate into the ground, thus polluting both the air and water. During hotter months, the methane gas can ignite, exacerbating the poor air quality.

In the city, waste on the streets gives rise to a different concern: disease. The accumulation of waste on the streets and standing water create ideal breeding grounds for insects that carry vector-based diseases such as dengue, malaria, and yellow fever, and dense urban areas allow for fast transmission. The improvement is especially noticeable in the poorer sections of Katraj - the slums - where in the past, waste collection was irregular at best, leading to severe health risks.

The waste pickers of Katraj have been among the other obvious beneficiaries. The project makes a dramatic improvement in their lives. Door-to-door collection eliminates the everyday dangers waste pickers used to face when they climbed into giant metal waste containers and had to compete with stray dogs while sorting through the city’s trash. Not only do the wages of waste pickers increase under this system, so does their value in society. This change in wage and social worth is already leading to improved social mobility for the families of waste pickers. According to the head of SWaCH, all the children of waste pickers in Katraj are now attending school.

The project has also resulted in a decrease in transportation and fuel costs, benefitting city coffers, key at a time of economic insecurity and strained municipal budgets. PMC estimates that the transportation cost per ton of waste equals Rs. 800 to 900, including fuel and labour. The test ward of Katraj generated an average of 10 tonnes of garbage daily prior to project implementation. Now, trash sent to landfill from Katraj has declined to about two tonnes per day, according to the data collected by PMC. This translates into a direct saving of at least Rs. 2.4 million per annum plus the savings on buying new dumper trucks and trucks’ maintenance.

The city will also save on landfill costs in the long run. In Pune’s 2011-12 budget, it estimated that Rs. 390 million would be needed for landfill maintenance. However, the costs mentioned here do not take into account the environmental and the related social benefits, which when put together, contribute to the overwhelming savings of the project.

The project is a success based on its measurable indicators. As noted above it reduced the waste sent to landfill by 80 per cent. Door-to-door coverage increased dramatically from 30 per cent prior to project implementation to at least 85 per cent within the first year. Previously, no household segregated its waste. Now more than 80 per cent of the ward gives segregated waste to the waste pickers. Finally, the economic condition of the waste pickers has risen as expected. Earlier they earned about Rs. 3000 per month but now because of the Zero Garbage waste project, their earnings have increased to an average of Rs. 7000 per month. The streets of Katraj are cleaner and the area is the envy of neighbouring wards.

Obstacles on the way

All this was not achieved without its share of hurdles in implementation. Several unintended outcomes developed during the implementation phase of the project. The first dealt with payment for waste pickers involved in door-to-door collection. During the first two months of the project, Janwani paid waste pickers Rs. 1 per day per household for doorstep-collection services. However, not all waste pickers performed the duty. There was no accountability. To counter the problem, project partners devised a direct user-pay system, where households provide the Rs. 1 per day for collection. This provided an incentive for waste pickers to collect the trash.

There were also problems with street sweeping that were unforeseen. Street sweepers typically dump collected waste into community waste bins, but in Katraj, the majority of those bins are now gone. The sweepers were left with limited disposal options, and the issue led to the burning of trash - a serious health concern. To stop the street sweeper’s practice of burning the garbage, the PMC outfitted the workers with push carts and wheel-barrels to carry the refuse to feeder points, where it is collected by city sanitation employees. This practice has proven to be more convenient for the city because the feeder points make the collection faster and more efficient.

However, the main challenge to sustaining the Zero Garbage Model was, perhaps expectedly, human behaviour. It is important to determine whether residents will continue to participate in the system. In areas where community bins remain in Katraj, household collection rates are lower because residents have the option to use these mixed-waste bins as it spares them the trouble of segregation. These waste bins remain in place because of opposition from elected officials. When these are removed, household collection should approximate or reach 100 percent. However, attitudes about cleanliness still vary widely. Open plots without community waste bins sometimes become impromptu dumping grounds. Convincing all residents of the importance of cleanliness could present a challenge in the future.

It is also valid to consider waste picker behaviour. Will waste pickers continue to be dedicated and timely in household collection services? The project in Katraj represents a significant change for them, and whether they will continue this new model when scrutiny lessens is yet to be seen. Additionally, implementation of a system similar to the Zero Garbage Ward may be difficult in cities where waste pickers are not organized, as they are in Pune through SWaCH Coop. Cities hoping to replicate this model may need to take a step backward and form an organization that manages waste pickers and is responsive to their needs.

A sustainable solution must be economically feasible, socially acceptable and environmentally sound, in accordance with the U.N. definition of sustainable development. It must also be implementable. We know from looking at the streets of cities in India and in many developing countries that the current systems of waste collection and disposal do not meet these requirements. However, Janwani’s zero-waste initiative does.

The Zero Garbage Ward changes how we view waste. Instead of something disposable, we see waste as a renewable resource with a potential to aid in problems such as electricity shortages and cleaner burning fuels. This shift makes dumping mixed garbage in a landfill seem wasteful, as well as shameful. Decentralizing collection and implementing a user fee for doorstep collection makes the project both economically and technically feasible; reduction of city costs contributes further to this feasibility. A major factor in both the sustainability and replicability of the new model is its reliance on the waste picker. Instead of turning its back on the critical informal sector, the Zero Garbage Ward model incorporates it, making use of the available manpower.