Rework, reuse, recycle

"In Mumbai, the ragpickers' daily collections most likely end up in the city's largest (though officially unrecognized) recycling center: Dharavi's 13th compound. In this small part of this sprawling slum, 15,000 single-room factories recycle an estimated 80 percent of Mumbai's plastic waste. Could it be that these shanty room enterprises are actually leading the city's green movement?"


Katy Fentress, Nairobi Community ManagerNairobi's Mukuru Recycling Centre

Katy Fentress, Nairobi Community Manager

The Mukuru Recycling Centre (MRC) has been operating since 1991 and is run by a cooperative based in Korogocho, an East Nairobi informal settlement that borders on the Dandora dumpsite.

The Centre is composed by four groups of waste-pickers, whose livelihoods are all inextricably connected to the nearby dumpsite. The aim is not only to create economic opportunities for Korogocho residents, but also to help in the rehabilitation of scavengers who, having spent their entire lives working knee-deep in garbage, have little sense of self-worth or prospects for a better future.

Amongst Dandora scavengers, it is common to find high levels of alcoholism, glue sniffing, and prostitution. The cooperative is involved in supporting these people in their struggle to get out of the cycle of despair.

Women's empowerment was a large focus of the project from the start, and today women hold a significant number of the leadership positions in the Central Committee.

Before the creation of the dumpsite, members of the community were already involved in solid waste collection and separation, but did so on an individual basis and did not support each other or work together as a group.

The Centre was founded 1990 with the help of two Italian priests, Father John Nobilo and Father Alex Zanotelli — who, backed by the Catholic community in Mukuru, worked hard to draw together young and old residents and set up a community run organization.

The idea was to cut out the middleman and transport the collected plastic, metal, and glass directly to the big recycling plants. In addition to this, the group set up a system with which to transform used paper and cardboard into coal-substitute briquettes. Finally, the group also set up a compost unit for organic waste, which they use themselves but also sell on to other groups involved in urban agriculture.

Given the success of the project, in 1995, the United Nations Center for Human Settlement (UNCHS) decided to provide the centre with additional technical and logistical support.

Over the years, the MRC members' quality of life has improved in respect to that of other Dandora waste-pickers. Women have also become stronger stakeholders in their community — and, with the help of solidarity groups, collective work, and urban agriculture, have been able to focus on running their households and providing a better future for their children.

A 2001 UCL Development Planning Unit research paper, which focused on the gender balance within the Centre, found that:

  • Before the Mukuru Recycling Centre was created in 1991, men did despise women. But by now, women and men are regarded as equal participants within the community. 'Equal' in the sense that women and men are sharing the same resources (e.g. workplace, waste material), their jobs are done collectively and every member has the opportunity to maintain a leadership position. There are free elections for all leadership positions and the candidate who best qualifies for a certain position, irrespectively of whether that person is a woman or a man, occupies that position.
  • The Mukuru Recycling Centre has an organizational structure that has given women the opportunity to take on leading roles. Women are gradually realizing the immense potential they have and have started to take up the challenge to assert themselves. Today, about 50 percent of the leadership positions of the Mukuru Project are in the hands of women.

The situation remains the same today, with women still playing an important role within the centre but also creating stronger self-help networks around the community.

According to Vincent Oduor Onuoch, 41, a Korogocho resident who works as a volunteer in the MRC rehabilitation program: "Women take back the discipline they have learned in their work and use it in the community to make life run smoother.... In the other areas of Dandora, it's about survival of the fittest, but the Mukuru community has learned to work together."

Onuoch works mainly with youth who are trying to cut down on their drug and alcohol intake; his role is to support them through their withdrawal in a centre 27 kilometres away, before helping them get jobs back at the recycling plant. He tells us that "of the youth that make it through the program," — about 40 percent, he estimates — "many have gone on to work as youth mentors, while others are now actively involved in running the briquette-making plant. We try to encourage these youths to be creative and think up new ways to recycle."

Although MRC members earn only marginally more than their counterparts in other parts of the slum, the increase in organizational capacities of people in the community has given them a better sense of self-worth and allowed them to make choices for themselves that would previously have seemed impossible.

Carlin Carr, Mumbai Community ManagerAre Mumbai's recyclers leading the city's green movement?

Carlin Carr, Mumbai Community Manager

India's growing middle class has access to more goods, services and products than ever before. This new consumerism heaped atop rapid urbanization has left municipalities with an issue much less glamorous than the new malls, grocery stores and mega-shops dotting the cities. Massive solid waste accumulation has become an overwhelming environmental, health and aesthetic hazard for urban areas. Mumbai, for example, generates nearly 7,025 tons of waste on a daily basis, according to the Bombay Community Public Trust. Yet, as the study points out, this trash is from officially recognized areas of the city and likely leaves out thousands more tons from informal slums.

Developing countries often spend 20 to 50 percent of their municipal budgets on waste management, although only 50 percent of city residents — and often much less — are usually covered. As a result of this lack of infrastructure, a large informal ragpicking and recycling industry has grown among the urban poor. Ragpickers — mostly women and children — wade through piles of unwanted goods to salvage scraps that can be sold off to earn a daily living. A 2007 New York Times article identified more than 300,000 ragpickers in Delhi alone; a more recent Mint article claimed the capital city has 80,000 ragpickers. This discrepancy can likely be attributed to the invisibility in which they work. "More than 95 percent of New Delhi has no formal system of house-to-house garbage collection," says the article in The New York Times, "so it falls to the city's ragpickers, one of India's poorest and most marginalized groups, to provide this basic service for fellow citizens. They are not paid by the state for their work, relying instead on donations from the communities they serve, and on meager profits from the sale of discarded items."

Dharavi's 13th compound

In Mumbai, the ragpickers' daily collections most likely end up in the city's largest — though officially unrecognized — recycling center: Dharavi's 13th compound. In this small area of Mumbai's sprawling slum, 15,000 single-room factories recycle an estimated 80 percent of Mumbai's plastic waste. Could it be that these shanty room enterprises are actually leading the city's green movement?

According to an article in the Guardian that explores the narrow bylanes of the 13th Compound, a growing number of environmental campaigners say that Dharavi is "becoming the green lung stopping Mumbai choking to death on its own waste." The vast operation employs an estimated 250,000 of the urban poor who sort, separate, clean, and recycle everything imaginable collected from all corners of the city. Glass, paper, aluminum, plastics and tins are part of the 4,000 tons of waste that get processed every day. The industry generates US$72 million per year, says an article on Dharavi's recycling potential by the blog Green Jobs for India. While the staggering numbers have earned the 13th Compound a label of "Dharavi's recycling miracle," the headlines "fail to take Dharavi's recycling workers seriously, missing both the problems and potential in the sector." Recycling worldwide is a multi-billion dollar industry, but the lack of infrastructure in Dharavi works against the scale-up of the recycling industry to reach its true earning potential.

Investment in better infrastructure would not only have monetary payoffs, but would help to improve the conditions of workers and better their standard of living. The upgrades would need to include better spaces and equipment (much of the material is hazardous) along with training for workers.

Green workers, not ragpickers

Mumbai's ACORN Foundation works to improve conditions for the city's ragpickers — many of whom earn less than a dollar a day for their strenuous work. The project, called "Dharavi: Waste Matters for Green Workers," refers to these waste collectors not as ragpickers but as "green workers," recognizing their progressive role in a worldwide recycling movement. "If it were not for these ragpickers who recover, recycle, and ensure reuse of the waste, Mumbai would have been reduced to a dump yard with serious issues," says Vinod Shetty, Director of ACORN Foundation India.

The organization has 400 green workers engaged in its project and currently focuses on providing informal schooling to the workers' children in an effort to keep the kids from engaging in the trade at an early age. Handling garbage all day is also a health risk to these laborers, so in response, ACORN also organizes health programs and check-ups. Other initiatives for the members — who pay a nominal fee to join — are cultural events and arts lessons, as well as workshops on waste segregation. Most importantly, however, ACORN is working to bring official recognition to these "green workers." The organization assists with getting access to ration cards, and with these cards, comes an identity — a small step towards recognition.

Shetty says that his goal is to have the government introduce insurance schemes for these workers as well as protective equipment, including handing out gloves, masks, and other scavenging materials. Mumbai, like most municipalities around India, has done little to assist these workers, even as they fill the gap in government services.

Formalizing waste workers

While these informal garbage collectors have been quietly servicing the needs of urban residents, Delhi's municipal government decided last year to hand over the city's solid waste management to private firms, leaving the ragpickers without a livelihood. "The integration of waste-pickers into the doorstep collection of garbage is one of the methods that will guarantee their access to scrap; improve their working conditions; improve their earnings; and transform the status of the occupation from scavenging to service provision," says a case study, "Organizing the Unorganized." Officials claim the partnership would be unfeasible and costs towards minimum-wage salaries for the city's ragpickers would amount to INR15 lakh a day (US$1.5m), according to the Mint article mentioned above.

The city of Pune, however, has proven that incorporating the ragpickers into the city's waste management can be both socially responsible and economically viable. SWaCH, a social enterprise focused on solid waste collection and handling, is India's first wholly owned cooperative of self-employed ragpickers. In 2007, SWaCH entered into a public-private partnership with the Pune Municipal Corporation (PMC) to provide door-to-door waste management services to 200,000 Pune households. A strong wastepickers union, Kagad Kach Patra Kashtakari Panchayat (KKPKP), has existed in Pune since 1993 after it was established during a convention of ragpickers. Since its inception nearly 20 years ago, the union has made significant strides in bettering the lives and working conditions of its members, including gaining identity cards. Additionally, KKPKP proved that the ragpickers' work saved Pune several million dollars in waste-handling costs.

The PMC authorized the partnership after a pilot project was launched that showed the formalizing of ragpickers into the municipality's system effectively fills the gap between the household and the municipal waste collection service. "It also helped dispel myths of working with the urban poor and showed that waste collectors are punctual, regular, efficient, honest, and cordial," according to SWaCH. Furthermore, it showed that the residents of Pune — who would now pay the ragpickers rather than them relying on donations — would be willing to pay for the services.

The city of Pune has demonstrated the successful integration of marginalized groups and the willingness of the municipality to "tap into the grass-roots abilities of the poor." "Such growth can more substantially improve the lives of the ragpickers and can at the same time assist cities to move to greener and more sustainable futures," says a paper, "Alleviating Poverty and Greening the City: Women Ragpickers of Mumbai." SWaCH attributes its success to a strong pre-existing wastepickers union and sees a need for more unionization in other cities to move forward with this model elsewhere. A "strange paradox" has occurred in India, says SWaCH, where, despite a policy framework that opens up possibilities for the integration of wastepickers, few NGOs have initiated the organization of this group. The time is ripe for cities to think more innovatively about managing waste and incorporating an existing workforce of knowledgeable recyclers whose skills can be leveraged towards a cleaner and greener future.

María Fernanda Carvallo, Mexico City Community ManagerCambian basura por productos frescos: Mercado de Trueque en Chapultepec

María Fernanda Carvallo, Mexico City Community Manager

Según el último informe publicado por la Organización Mundial de la Salud sobre los índices de contaminación en más de 150 ciudades alrededor del mundo, la Ciudad de México se encuentra entre las urbes con mayores emisiones de partículas de carbono. Además, el informe señala que esa contaminación no solo impacta negativamente la calidad de vida de las ciudades, sino que la salud de sus habitantes se ve mermada y propicia que estén más propensos a infecciones respiratorias y en la piel. La OMS también indica que, si bien no es una explicación del todo concluyente, es entendible que las ciudades que ocupan los primeros puestos pertenezcan a países en vías de desarrollo, ya que tienen las políticas ambientales menos eficientes y una alta densidad de población que inevitablemente lleva a más contaminación.

La densidad demográfica en la zona metropolitana de la Cd. De México, de acuerdo a cifras del INEGI, es de 6000 habitantes por kilómetro cuadrado en la zona conurbada, lo que implica una creciente generación de basura por el consumo diario. Ante esta problemática, el gobierno de la ciudad ha implementado una política ambiental novedosa y a largo plazo que busca mitigar los efectos de la contaminación atmosférica y devolver la calidad de vida a sus habitantes.

Política ambiental en el DF: Plan Verde

Desde el comienzo de la actual administración, el gobierno de la Ciudad de México en 2006 lanzó un plan de trabajo con una proyección de quince años denominado Plan Verde. Su objetivo es hacer del Distrito Federal una ciudad sustentable y así brindarle a sus habitantes una óptima calidad de vida. Para tener un mayor impacto, fue diseñado bajo un esquema interinstitucional para poder abarcar todos los ejes temáticos referentes a la conservación del medio ambiente y la preservación de los espacios verdes, en coordinación con las 16 delegaciones a través de planes verdes locales.

En Plan Verde está conformado por siete temas divididos a su vez en estrategias, entre ellos: suelo de conservación, habitabilidad y espacio público sustentable, agua potable y restauración de los mantos acuíferos, movilidad y vialidad, reducción de partículas de carbono, sistema integral de recolección de residuos sólidos y promoción del mercado de energías renovables en la ciudad.

Mercado de trueque

Para el manejo integral de los residuos sólidos, un modelo innovador es el Mercado de Trueque que se lleva a cabo en Chapultepec, un sistema de intercambio a través del cuál se busca dar mejor manejo a las más de 12,000 toneladas de basura diaria que se generan en la ciudad; las personas cambian residuos inorgánicos por alimentos cultivados localmente, provenientes sobre todo de las regiones agrícolas del sur de la ciudad, Xochimilco, Milpa Alta y Tláhuac.

En una ciudad que genera tanta basura, el programa es un referente para efectos de reciclaje y re-uso de manera sostenida en los años por venir. Asimismo, representa una ayuda invaluable para minimizar el nocivo impacto de la contaminación ambiental, al tiempo que los ciudadanos asumen la responsabilidad que les corresponde en la generación de desechos.

Para garantizar que el mercado no se convierta en uno obsoleto y cumpla con su objetivo, la recolección sigue un detallado programa de valorización e intercambio. La Secretaría de Medio Ambiente del D.F. establece un rango de valor para dar a los residuos que vayan a ser intercambiados. Bajo ese criterio, las personas acuden a los denominados “puntos verdes” para adquirir productos locales a cambio de los residuos previa valorización realizada. Para garantizar que el mayor número de personas pueda ser beneficiada, la Secretaría de Medio Ambiente fijó un máximo de 10 kilogramos de residuos inorgánicos por persona y un mínimo de uno. Entre los alimentos ofertados se encuentran, acelga, brócoli, cilantro, coliflor, cebollín, epazote, espinaca, lechugas, jitomate, perejil, rábano, nopal, quesos, moles, plantas de ornato y dulces típicos. Los residuos recolectados en el mercado son enviados a plantas especializadas en su manejo para finalmente ser reutilizados y romper el ciclo del desperdicio.

Entre los residuos que se recolectan se encuentran, vidrio, papel, cartón, latas y botes de aluminio y botellas de PET. Sin embargo, en cada edición se han ido incorporando diferentes tipos de materiales, como, aparatos electrodomésticos, aparatos de línea blanca y dispositivos móviles.


Durante el 2012 han sido seis las ediciones mensuales del mercado de trueque en Chapultepec en las primeras tres ediciones se otorgaron puntos verdes a más de 15 mil personas. De acuerdo a la Secretaría del Medio Ambiente, los asistentes han recolectado 50 toneladas de residuos reciclables con un impacto ambiental mayor, entre ellos la recolección de 25 toneladas de papel, cartón y tetrapack evitó que 450 árboles fueran talados como materia prima de papel nuevo, que se dejaran de utilizar más de 600 mil litros de agua para su producción y 100 mil kilowatts de energía eléctrica. Así mismo, las 8 toneladas de PET recolectadas equivalen a los insumos para producir 80 mil camisas de fibra textil. La recolección representó una importante disminución de los residuos dispuestos en rellenos sanitarios, cerca de 70m3.

Así mismo, el Mercado de Trueque representa una oportunidad ante la crisis alimentaria, pues bien en próximas ediciones se contempla incluir alimentos que han subido su precio en el mercado, los cuales se pueden obtener a un menor precio a través de las alianzas con los productores locales.

Finalmente, el consumo de productos locales evita los traslados de mercancías de zonas productoras disminuyendo la huella de carbono, se beneficia a los productores a través del comercio justo y se mantienen productivas las chinampas y tierras agrícolas del sur de la ciudad. En relación a la cultura del reciclaje, se genera un modelo de educación ambiental en donde las personas aprenden a separar correctamente los residuos y comprueban que la basura es materia prima para otros productos.

Ante el impacto evidente, el modelo del Mercado de Trueque puede ser replicado en otras ciudades por medio de la coordinación interinstitucional, productores locales, autoridades locales y compañías de manejo de residuos sólidos. ¿Es posible que se implemente en tu ciudad?

Catalina Gomez, Rio de Janeiro Community ManagerTransforming trash into treasure in Vidigal

Catalina Gomez, Rio de Janeiro Community Manager

Vidigal is a low-income neighborhood in Rio's Zona Sul, located between the wealthy areas of Leblon and São Conrado, and right in the lower part of the Dois Irmãos hill, one of the main icons of the city. Vidigal, with an estimated 9,000 residents, presents mixed living conditions, with areas that have good access to public facilities, such as schools, health posts, and child care services, and other areas that are still struggling for better access to such services.

But what is most significant about Vidigal these days is that the neighborhood is enjoying an important transformation, as can be seen in its increased economic and cultural activity. This change can be attributed mostly to the reduction of violence from drug trafficking conflicts, and to the recent presence of a Social UPP, which has established three bases throughout the neighborhood since January 2012. Vidigal's residents have not been passive in this transformation, and many of them have been actively engaged in community projects aiming to make their home a safer, cleaner, and more dynamic place.

One of the most inspiring of the projects contributing to Vidigal's transformation is Sitiê, an initiative that was started by three of its residents. In 2006 they decided to recover 300 square meters of an area that used to be a garbage dump where residents threw all sorts of items — from plastic bottles and tires to old furniture — and transform it into a park. The process of recovery has taken several years. First, the three residents engaged other community members to help them clear away the trash that was there; then they planted new trees. Next, they requested landscape support from Rio's Botanical Garden and then engaged local artists to help them "decorate" the park, mostly using recycled materials retrieved from what used to be the garbage dump. For example, old toilets are now vases for plants and flowers, and old tires are now used as part of the trail leading into the park. The result of all this effort is a "green oasis," as many locals have called it, right in the heart of the city.

What is most impressive about this initiative is that it is based entirely on neighborhood support and collaboration. And it doesn't stop there: Sitiê has now expanded and has a small orchid vivarium and a room for recycling trash, spaces that were adapted from two abandoned houses located inside the park. According to Sergio Moreira, who belongs to Vidigal's Neighbors' Association and follows up on environmental topics, Sitiê has brought the neighborhood a lot of pride. According to Moreira, the initiative has raised awareness about the importance of taking care of the environment at the neighborhood level, and has also served as an inspiration to new volunteers.

Although this initiative is more than six years old, it only gained momentum during the Rio+20 events in late June 2012 as different international commissions and environmental groups visited the project. Sitiê is promoted both by its own residents and by those interested in the promotion of Vidigal's tourism. For example, Mariana Albanese, a blogger who maintains the web site Vidiga!, covering life and activities in Vidigal, recommends Sitiê as one of the top six places worth visiting in the neighborhood. She argues that the neighborhood has relevant touristic potential beyond the typical "favela tour." Sitiê, together with some recently inaugurated shops and galleries, is becoming extremely important for the local economy, which is attracting many more visitors than ever before.

Although it is difficult to predict whether a project like this is scalable and can be replicated in other parts of the city, it is already a clear inspiration for many people to take direct action in preserving the environment and engaging locals for the common good.

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