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Power to the people

Shalini Yeap
Shalini Yeap • 13 min read
Power to the people
Getting to know Bengaluru’s waste workers through The Body Shop’s latest community trade programme, which aims to help close the loop on plastic waste management.
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Getting to know Bengaluru’s waste workers through The Body Shop’s latest community trade programme, which aims to help close the loop on plastic waste management.

SINGAPORE (June 3): The day begins early — often before sunrise — for 40-something Annamma who works as a waste picker in Bengaluru, India. After preparing breakfast, she heads out even before her children wake up for school, returning in the late afternoon to segregate the collection of the day and just in time to cook and clean for the family. Some days, she walks a few miles to the nearest collection centre to sell the scrap. This has been a typical day for her for decades, as it probably has been for the rest of Bengaluru’s community of waste pickers, 50% of whom are women.

While it is fairly common to see waste pickers in the bustling city, their lives and work are, ironically, cloaked by invisibility. Perhaps this stems from that out-of-sight-out-of-mind view and treatment of waste everywhere in the world.

A discussion on waste management would be incomplete without involving plastic — a material that has developed a bad reputation in recent times. Synthetic and mass-produced, it is the antithesis to the sustainable approach that our world desperately needs. But global community trade manager at The Body Shop, Lee Mann, believes that “not using plastic is not the answer to tackling the plastic crisis; it is about using plastic responsibly”. Mismanagement is, after all, the main reason behind the deluge of plastic — once regarded as the most versatile of packaging materials, it now fills already overflowing landfills and litters the oceans.

With this in mind, the newest addition to The Body Shop’s list of community trade suppliers sees its return to India where its first CT product, a Footsie Roller, was produced in 1986 by Teddy Exports. Today, there are 31 suppliers in 23 countries and 95% of its formulations contain at least one CT ingredient.

In a strategic partnership with Plastics for Change, Hasiru Dala (a non governmental organisation that fights for waste picker rights) and Hasiru Dala Innovations or HDI (a social enterprise dedicated to creating essential employment opportunities for waste pickers), The Body Shop’s goal is to incorporate recycled plastic into its packaging, starting with 250ml haircare bottles, save for the caps (which are manufactured from 100% post-consumer recycled plastic — 15% of which is CT recycled plastic and 85% recycled plastic from European sources), beginning with the immensely popular Ginger Scalp Care Shampoo. With one bottle of this product sold every four seconds worldwide, it is the obvious choice for scale and impact, especially for the 2,500 waste pickers that The Body Shop’s purchase of 250 tonnes of recycled plastic this year will support — an amount that the British cosmetics, skincare and perfume company hopes to double in 2020.

According to for-profit social enterprise Plastics for Change, plastic forms about 45% of the waste pickers’ revenue. Besides the economic contribution to them, it also means that their jobs play a critical role in keeping plastic out of landfills, streets and rivers where it will languish for decades. It was only in recent times that we, as a society, have become more concerned about waste management. But many waste pickers of Bengaluru have been quietly dealing with it daily almost all their lives, long before the global plastic crisis made it a trending topic worldwide.

“Think of them as the modern-day hunter-gatherers,” says Plastics for Change founder Andrew Almack, adding “India has over 400 million people living below the poverty line and there is also an abundance of plastic. Plastics for Change connects the dots between the two.”

The social enterprise catalyses the recovery and recycling of plastic waste in a profitable manner while helping brands meet and exceed their extended producer responsibility. In addition to providing access to international markets and fair prices, a mobile platform — that even illiterate waste pickers can benefit from, thanks to the voice message function — offers updates on pricing and programmes organised by other partners, such as Hasiru Dala, so that waste workers can know what is happening in the sector.

The stories behind the faces

“Nobody talks about the human side of [discarded] plastic… some of the world’s poorest pick it up in an attempt to make a living from it,” says Lee Mann, referring to the waste pickers who feel the effects of high price volatility and challenging working conditions the most. Hasiru Dala member Parveen Taj, who has been a waste picker since she was eight, confirms this. “Of all the waste we pick, plastic gives us the most income.”

During the CT trip, we learnt that the 1.5 million waste pickers in India are crucial to the formal waste management system. According to Hasiru Dala, the 35,000 independent waste pickers in Bengaluru collect 1,050 tonnes of recyclable waste every day, saving the city INR8.4 million, not to mention the environmental benefit of less waste on the streets, thanks to their door-to-door service. In fact, says Vishwanath C, a Hasiru Dala dry waste collection centre manager, “nothing goes to the landfill; the non-recyclables go to the cement factories to be used as fuel”, making the system truly sustainable.

Like Hasiru Dala’s oldest member, Indira, who represented waste pickers at a United Nations Event Conference in Indonesia, the NGO’s members have a lot to be proud of. Parveen has never been to school herself but her three children attend a private school. Annamma, who began picking waste at 10, is now a confident entrepreneur running a dry waste collection centre. “When I started [picking waste] about 30 years ago, there was barely any plastic. Cell batteries used to fetch a lot of money. We also had many rice sacks used to fill sugar; once empty we sold them,” says Annamma, witness to the steady rise in plastic waste. She is known as the first waste picker to buy a truck and now owns a house.

The Body Shop’s CT initiative has its roots in the philosophy of its founder — the late Dame Anita Roddick — of offering a hand versus a handout. This foundation has been strengthened by its recent acquisition by Brazilian cosmetics and personal care giant Natura. As the first public-traded company in the world to receive a B Corporation certification, Natura is believed to better represent the British brand’s activist stance than its erstwhile owner L’Oréal.

To date, there are 180 dry waste collection centres in Bengaluru, 34 of which are supported by Hasiru Dala. We visited a range of centres, from those owned independently to those subsidised by the government, to better understand how things are done. The first one was Shaktiman’s van unit, which sits next to some blocks of apartments. Waste is collected and segregated in a mostly open space by the 25 employees living on-site in accommodation that they constructed themselves.

“There have been complaints that the collection centre is an eyesore and that the land lease is only for two years at a time, which means that we have to keep moving,” says Shaktiman on the challenges he faces. Waste picking is often multigenerational and it is not uncommon for children to follow in their parents’ footsteps, albeit at different levels of waste management. But one of Shaktiman’s daughters, Dolly, tells us she harbours dreams of becoming a tailor.

Our second stop, Krishna’s segregation centre, operates in a closed space and receives some form of government assistance. Unlike Shaktiman’s van unit, the heaps of waste contained within this structure are wetter and not well segregated. We are told that the type of waste each centre receives depends on the neighbourhood it operates in. Owing to better awareness and education, the more affluent ones tend to segregate waste at source.

“No waste picker I have spoken to dislikes the work they do… all they ask for is recognition of what they do and to be treated with respect and dignity,” Krishna explains. His dream is for a system that offers everyone who works in waste picking fair wages. “We need to have a system in place that protects them and allows them to grow.”

Winds of change

Despite being the backbone of informal waste collection, for a long time, the majority of 1.5 million waste pickers in India were regarded as dalits or “the untouchables”. They were accorded little to no protection and operated in an unregulated industry. But this narrative is changing.

NGOs such as Plastics for Change, Hasiru Dala and HDI are creating an ecosystem where the key contributors to the sustainability of the waste sector are protected and can operate efficiently.

One example is Hasiru Dala’s crucial role in pushing for the occupational identity card issued by the state of Karnataka, acknowledging the job of a waste picker. “A large amount of what we do involves impacting and influencing policy and [awareness of the] general public,” says the co-founder of Hasiru Dala, Nalini Shekar. She also co-founded a waste picker union in Pune and received the Kempe Gowda Award and Star Award from the Asian Community in the San Francisco Bay Area for her social service.

Apart from no longer being considered “thieves”, a fundamental benefit is that this card allows the bearer to open a bank account, a matter of crucial importance, as discovered during India’s 2016 demonetisation, which made them even more vulnerable to unpredictable payments and made it harder for them to make ends meet.

The occupational identity card, however, is only applicable to people who have their origins in Bengaluru, and in a city with a high number of migrants, this poses a challenge. One example is Krishna’s employee, 48-year-old Rani.

Originally from Tamil Nadu, she now lives in a slum near a tin factory about 8km from the segregation centre. Although working here offers consistent payments, she does not enjoy the benefits of a cardholder.

Another win for the waste pickers came in the form of a definition of their role in the Solid Waste Management Rules in 2016. For a community that previously had no visibility in society, this was a big boost.

“The best moment in 2016, for me, was the legislative recognition of waste pickers. Behavioural change cannot do much without legislative change,” enthused Nalini in an interview. “Many people have a lot to say about waste management but there is [often] no voice from the people who are working in it.” Hasiru Dala fills this lacuna by ensuring these voices are heard.

Next up was Sivvasidayah’s segregation centre. Having visited both independent and government-subsidised centres, we noticed the glaring difference. Although also situated inside a building, the working conditions at this centre are considerably better. It has more ventilation and private investment has enabled the purchase of a machine, which allows waste to be segregated on a conveyor belt-like set-up. If anyone recognises the advantages of a well-managed and well-equipped centre, it would certainly be owner ­Sadashivaiah, 52, and his wife Maryamma, 48, both of whom had been picking waste from a very young age. Both hard workers, they make a good team and Maryamma, although equally shy, steps forward to speak with members of the media, much to the relief of her husband. She tells us that they picked waste together for over two decades before starting a small collection centre.

“Hasiru Dala approached us in our small shop and helped us scale up the business to what we have today. We still have the old shop; it is leased out. We won’t let it go as there are many memories there,” she says. For the past six years, they have been running their current centre with their three sons and a group of waste pickers, managing up to 1.2 tonnes per day. “We have to work hard to put food in our bellies. That’s just how our life is,” Maryamma says with a knowing smile.

Ultimately, like any other occupation, waste picking is a skill. It takes a lot of time and energy to understand the type and category of plastic, as we learnt the hard way when we gave it a go at an HDI aggregation centre. A board on the wall with sample bottles attached to it, serves as a guide to which type of plastic bottle makes the cut, but unlike us, the employees at the centre barely glance at it. Standing opposite each other around a conveyor belt, they work fast, swiftly distinguishing the bottles that are suitable for The Body Shop from the rest in the pile.

“We started with the motto of getting a better price for waste, starting with paper, Tetra Pak packaging and cardboard but we could not get a good price for plastic as there is a very small margin for it in the recycling industry. During the demonetisation period, the price went down from INR40 to about INR25,” explains business manager Krupa Rani, who holds a master’s in Environmental Science.

The Body Shop has invested in a label-removing machine that drastically expedites processes at this centre, which buys waste from scrap shops, van units and dry collection centres.

Aggregation is the last process to take place in the country before the label-free, flattened plastic bottles, now tightly packed into piles, are shipped to Europe, where recycling will take place amid more stringent food-grade recycled plastic regulations. “Our specifications are very strict; it has to be food-grade plastic so that it does not affect the formula of our products,” says Lee Mann.

Globally, waste management has become increasingly challenging due to the huge amounts being tossed out daily. But for anyone who questions the statistics, visiting these waste collection centres is bound to put those doubts to rest. It is difficult to not be affected by the sheer amount of waste — and the work that goes into managing it — and it made us realise just how important it is to be mindful of what we throw out. The Body Shop’s decision to use CT recycled plastic in its fully recycled packaging addresses this and, hopefully, over time the synergy between its partners as well as the system can be perfected to increase the amount from the initial 15% and across all packaging.

If the impact of Teddy Exports’ CT projects is anything to go by, then this recycled plastic initiative has big shoes to fill. The former’s successes include building crèches, junior and high schools that are attended by more than 1,000 children a year, Teddy Health Clinics with 20,000 registered patients, health initiatives that provide benefits to more than 29,000 people a year, veterinary camps that treat more than 15,000 animals locally, outreach programmes that educate the community on safe sex and tailoring courses for community sex workers.

This is yet another crucial step in The Body Shop’s journey to achieve its goal of doubling CT ingredients in its products — from 19 to 40 — by 2020, addressing not only the issue of plastic waste but also various socioeconomic woes, as have the many CT efforts before it, and providing a better future for a community of people leading lives built on waste.

Shalini Yeap is a writer with Options at The Edge Malaysia

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