Article in “The Linc”

A story about my internship has been published in “The Linc”, the university of Lincoln’s student newspaper. Have a look at page 2 if you’re interested. It’s best to have a look at it in “fullscreen mode”. Should your browser not support my embedding the webpage just go to http://thelinc.co.uk/2011/02/the-linc-print-edition-february-2011/

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Best wishes,

Sven

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Nagloi – India’s Informal Recycling Hub

I’ve been to the Nagloi area twice now. The first time I was just shown around and the second time my colleague Brij interviewed some people who work and live in that area. You can reach Nagloi very easily by Metro and at first sight there seems to be nothing special about the area. However, if you wander away from the Metro station and follow the main road, tarmac soon turns into soil, loose stone and dust. The infrastructural conditions decrease rapidly. If you then make a turn into one of the side streets, you are in the middle of India’s informal recycling sector – even though this will not become apparent to you straight away.

Indeed, Nagloi is an area in which waste materials are imported from all around India. There is even waste that is brought into this area from other countries. As you move through the side streets you might manage to get a glimpse through one of the gates, which are usually. You can then spot piles of waste, open fires and people sitting on the floor amongst plastic bags and heaps of segregated materials. The gates are usually closed however, and this has a good reason. Most of the buildings here are located on what is officially recognised as agricultural land. This means that the people who run recycling businesses in this area do not do this legally as this activity is recognised as industrial work… and obviously not as an agricultural occupation. Thus, the authorities are “officially” not aware of these recycling units, which vary in size, and which are specialised in the recycling of all sorts of materials. The area is renowned as a centre for plastics-recycling however.

Recycling tires on “agricultural land”

Most of the owners of the recycling units do not welcome researchers who ask questions. They like people who ask if they can take pictures even less. Who knows, these outsiders might work for the government and want to close their illegitimate businesses down. Therefore, as you walk through the area you might never become aware what is actually going on behind the red brick walls. However, if you continue your journey even further, at some point you will reach one of the “non-permanent” recycling quarters, i.e. shantytowns, in which people live and work in the waste.

Living in Waste

Living in Waste

Working in the Waste

If you are walking through this area in the winter, like I did, you will somehow manage to bear the sight and the smell. It is dry, not too warm and there only some few flies. However, what the place looks like during the rainy season, or indeed during India’s hot summer months I don’t want to imagine.

The place that I saw was located next to a tiny canal. In fact it seemed as if the water stood still and as you can see in the picture below, it represented the stereotype of what one imagines to be polluted water. Fortunately people do not seem to use this water directly for washing and consumption. However, they do have hand pumps (located just next to this toxic brew), which they use to pump up water from underground sources. If I tell you Delhi’s tab water cannot be consumed, as it is not potable, you can imagine what the quality of this water must be like.

Toxic Water

When I mentioned earlier on that the smell was supportable, then I did of course not mean that it was it did not smell. In fact, it stank! This is down to several reasons. Firstly, people live here in sheds, made from waste materials. Their (rented!!!) properties are filled with separated and non-separated plastic waste of all sorts. Open your waste bin in the summer and you get the idea. Additionally to that comes the smell of burnt plastic. Many people, having separated plastic material into its different types, or having taken apart a specific type of packaging either burn the materials which are of no value to them, or, they smelt the plastics that can be recycled into bricks. These bricks are usually sold on to different units that transform them into pellets, which are eventually used to create new “things”. So you can now also see how plastics are recycled. The fires are in the open and the workers who feed them with plastic materials do not wear any face masks that could protect them from the toxic fumes and gases that are released as the plastics burn and melt.

Melting packaging

“Bricks” made of of smelted plastic

What a recycled product from this material can look like

There are also a lot of stray dogs running around. Half naked children play in and with the waste. I saw one child of about two years who was chewing on a pen-like object that was covered in mud and dirt. Nobody seemed to bother. Many young children however were not playing. They have to help in their parents’ recycling units. I observed one particular case, which deeply concerned me. A little boy, of no more than eight years, was separating the top part from cosmetic cream and toothpaste tubes with a sharp knife that can best be described as a scythe blade which is mounted to a wooden base that stands on the floor. As I was just thinking that this might be a dangerous occupation for a little boy, the child cut himself in his finger. It immediately started bleeding. The boy’s reaction was very calm though – I’m even tempted to say it was routine. Whereas any child of the same age that you and I know would have started to cry and would have looked for comfort and attention, this little fellow just interrupted his work to grab one of the tubes lying next to him. He treated the wound on his little fingers with some sort of crème that I could not identify. After the bleeding had stopped (well more or less that is) he just got on with his work and continued to cut the tubes into two.

Recycling toothpaste tubes

Recycling toothpaste tubes

As I have already indicated, the health of adult recyclers is compromised in many ways too. And I’m not talking about the poor sanitary conditions and the multiple sources from which they can catch an illness. We talked to a plastic smelter who has been melting plastic materials for three months now. This he does at an open fire (see pictures above). Already, he has noticed some respiratory problems: every morning after he wakes up, he suffers from a very bad cough. I don’t think there is any doubt that this is related to the toxic fumes he breathes in day, in day out.

I realise that the picture I’m painting here is very grim. Unfortunately this is what I’ve observed and obviously the conditions in the shantytowns are highly visible (once you’re there) and probably represent the most extreme conditions under which informal recyclers live and work. I do however think that it’s important that the Air France passenger (that includes myself) realises that the head phones s/he’s offered so kindly so s/he not bored during the flight, those same headphones that s/he leaves behind in the plane, end up in this place and are taken apart by the hands of informal child recyclers.

It’s also very hard to explain what goes on behind the walls of the stone built recycling units. As I said before, it is not easy for outsiders to gain access to these units. However, I was let in to one of these units and, what was even more surprising I was allowed to take pictures of it. My colleague Brij had asked to take pictures of the same unit a couple of weeks back and was not allowed.

I think that me standing out as a Westerner does make a big difference. I initially thought that, as it has happened in many other cases I’ve read about, people would not want to give any information to an outsider who does not even speak the language. However, most recyclers that we’ve spoken too seem to be very curious about me. They want to know what I’m doing here and why on earth I’ve come all the way from England to “visit” them. This seems to be in our advantage, as it is a very good icebreaker. People talk to us first. Hence we often need not have to try to engage them into a conversation and having answered their questions we can informally ask them questions that we have about them. I thoroughly believe however that most of them think that I’m crazy. (They’re probably not too wrong.) One of the recyclers whom Brij told that I’m here as I want to learn about recycling was very quick on his feet. He just pointed at a pile of waste and very dryly proclaimed: “If he wants to know about recycling he can sit down and work for an afternoon with me. I will teach him all about it.”

Anyhow, the “gated” recycling unit that I was allowed into is specialised in the recycling of tin and aluminium. As with in the plastic-recycling process, the materials are first separated and then smelted into bricks. Even though conditions seemed better than in the slum area, the waste materials are still separated bare-handedly on the floor, and the cans are melted in an open fire. Everything is very basic.

Segregating cans and tins

The recycling process

The End Product

I hope the photos help to better illustrate what I witnessed. As usual, this entry is becoming rather long and I think you get an idea of one small part of India’s informal plastic recycling hub. I’m always happy to read your comments and of course welcome any questions you might have.

Best wishes,

Sven

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Plumber not Taj Mahal (another short update)

Due to a repeated flooding of my kitchen I did not go to see the Taj Mahal as I had to wait for the plumber to come and fail at to fixing the problem.  This means that you’ll have to wait for the Taj pictures until after next weekend.  But the kitchen drain should be unblocked this afternoon. Fingers crossed!

My flooded kitchen

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Just an Update

Hello,

Just a brief update on how I’m doing. At work, my induction period has now come to an end and during the next four weeks I’ll be working on a report on informal waste recycling. I’ll be helping with the analysis of quantitative data. Additionally to that, I will be conducting some interviews in order to get an idea about the “legal” issues that surround some of the everyday plastic waste materials such as plastic carrier bags (they might be banned). I will also be writing up some case studies from data that we have acquired in the field through semi-structured interviews with the owners of informal recycling units. So there is a lot of exciting work ahead of me.

Last night I went for some Italian food with Seth, an American colleague of mine who is working full-time at Chintan and who also works on a PhD thesis on informal street vending. I had a lovely evening, but when I got home my neighbours were awaiting me and asked me to have a look in my kitchen (which is a separate room and not attached to my “apartment”). When I opened the door I realised that the kitchen was flooded. The water must have come up the drain pipe as I haven’t used the water in the kitchen at all. So I had to spend a fair amount of time getting rid of the water in the kitchen (and there really was a lot of it!!). On the more positive side I got to know my neighbours, two twenty year old students, who can cook really nice food and who decided I had to join them for a delicious home made chicken curry. So I had dinner number two :-)

Anyway, when I got up this morning there was no water at all, so I could not have a shower… How ironic! Last night I was annoyed about too much water in the kitchen, now I wished I could have some drops to clean myself.

Tomorrow on my free day I’m planning to go and see the Taj Mahal in Agra. So that should be fun and I will update you with some photographs.

Take care,

Sven

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Scavengers to Managers

My second field trip last week took me to a colony in Delhi near Dilli Haat. Dilli Haat is a daily market and food plaza, where sellers from all around India sell region specific goods such as cloths, handcrafted items and arts. It used to be a traditional place of trade but has now, partly due to governmental subsidies, become a well-known tourist attraction. If ever you come to Delhi, come and have a look and taste the food ;)

Around the corner from this place I was introduced to Chintan’s Scavengers to Managers programme. This programme aims at giving waste pickers the tools to become official entrepreneurs who are recognised by society and the local government. They get a regular wage, and are formally allowed to make use of predestined public spaces to segregate the collected waste.

I would describe the area near Dilli Haat as a middle class residential colony. When we arrived we met with a rag picker and we joined him for a while on one of his routes. The rag pickers are officially employed by Chintan (for about 1000 rupees a month) and have to work every morning. They need to serve an allocated route. They are given a tricycle which they use to collect the waste from the households on their routes. Furthermore they have a uniform and can clearly be recognised as official workers.

Having collected the waste from every house on their route, they take it to a specific public space where they can segregate the collected materials. The only important rule is that they must separate organic materials from dry materials and put them in two separate containers which are emptied regularly by the municipalities. Apart from that, they are allowed to keep any materials they collect. These materials are sold to dealers  and that’s how the waste pickers make most of their money. As the job takes place in the morning they have the opportunity to do additional work in the afternoon. For example, the waste picker we shadowed also sweeps the yards of some of the houses from which he collects the wastes. This gives him an additional income.

The project is recognised and supported by the municipal authorities and the results are striking. There are no costs for the municipalities (their costs are reduced as they only need to empty the containers and need no longer serve every house in the area) and the residents can (but don’t have to) make donations and get a daily and reliable service in return. The waste picker’s income has increased considerably, the streets are much cleaner (waste no longer gets dumped on the street) and residents can rely on a daily service. In case of any rag picker not doing his/her job properly, a hot line can be called and the picker can be reported.

Thus, it can really be said that this project is highly sustainable. It creates a win-win situation for the local government, the residents and the waste pickers. Streets in the areas served by the Scavengers to Managers project are clean and the residents clearly see the improvements and advantages this system has brought about. What’s now needed is to show residents in other areas understand those advantages so that they can overcome their unjustified initial prejudgments.

Waste is meant to be segregation at the source by the households (organic and non-organic waste is separated)

Waste collection from the houses

Transportation

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