Picking on ‘Rag Picking’

With the urban areas spreading their boundaries to the rural areas, there are more people who are out of jobs. These people are unskilled, uneducated and illiterate. The easiest way which they find to support their life is by rag picking which is a self-employed job without any specific work timings.

It is estimated that there are at least 15 lakh scrap and waste collectors in India alone.

The flexibility of it even encourages the women folk to enter into this profession as they can strategically decide on the time when they have to work and when they have to take care of their family. This explains the higher percentage of women employed in this profession.

Ragpickers constitute a huge informal sector which works in an organized way. They have different groups within the community who segregate specific items. While few focus on copper, few others would pick plastics, and few glass, metallic pieces, rubber products, e-waste and so on. These components when sold to a client would fetch them money depending on the market force then. For example, in Kodingyur, iron was prices at Rs 18/kilo, copper at Rs 350/kilo, Aluminium at Rs 60/kilo, bottles at Rs 35/kilo and Masalas (Tin and plastic) at Rs 30/kilo. The money received would be enough to just about keep their family from starving and get the basic necessities.

Trash industry as a whole in itself is worth $410 million worldwide per year.In 2005, SAAHAS, a Bangalore based Waste Advocacy group estimated that gold extraction alone from Bangalore budding e-waste recycling industry was worth $1 million.

It is said that the landfill emissions are projected to increase to nearly 75% in 2050. With the segregation process done by the rag pickers, the materials like plastics and other materials which can’t be disposed are removed from the heap of waste. This is turn reduces pollution when the heap is burnt in open or in incinerators.

According to the 2010 UN Habitat Publication, the waste pickers perform 50% to 100% of all ongoing waste collection with no cost to the city budget. Thus, the intervention of Garbage collectors brings in huge amounts of profits for the official garbage collection committee.  In Delhi alone, it saves the Municipal Corporation Rs 600000 in daily waste disposal costs.

Picture Source : www.zimbio.com

Picture Source : http://www.zimbio.com

However, for the amount of work they do there is no official recognition given by the Government. There is no insurance provided and no option of pensions in their field of employment. Also, there is no guarantee on a stable monthly income as the prices of the components which they pick change depending on the market force and are further manipulated by the clients or scrap dealers they work for. On an average they receive Rs 100 to Rs 150 for 8 hours of work.

With no footwear or gloves used while working, the ragpickers are susceptible to all sorts of diseases ranging from the respiratory problems to the heart ailments. There have been accidents, garbage avalanches which remain to be unspoken about or even urged for a solution. In 2001, Ragpicking was included among the hazardous occupations banned under Child Labour(Prohibition and Regulation) Act, 1986.

Children as young as 4 years old assist their parents in the job to supplement income for the family. This deprives them of the basic education which in turn deprives them of a better livelihood in the future. Without any footwear or health precautionary measures, they suffer from diseases which later aggravate and result in the low life expectancy levels in the community as a whole. This form of child labour is a usual sight in the landfills.

Children grow up without being aware that there are better opportunities outside the life they lead. Even though their parents work hard to ensure that at least their kids are rescued from falling into taking up this job, the meager income pressurizes every member of the family to contribute.

It is also observed that the rag pickers are usually from the lower castes. No Brahmins or upper caste people can be seen taking up these professions. Thus, there arises a question of caste discrimination and equality. If this is an impact of the rigorous caste issues which our country has been having for centuries, isn’t it time we erase it?


It is time we thrash the trash

A review of the book, ‘Garbology: Our dirty affair with nature’ by Edward Humes

The rise in purchasing power of the consumers is now a matter of concern.

The mounting garbage on this planet is a product of the consume-and-dispose society that does not realise the consequences of wastefulness.

In this book, Edward Humes, with his matter-of-fact narration, nudges us to wake up to the issue of garbage which we have been conveniently overseeing as just another part of the consumer culture.

Pic source: Google

Pic source: Google

Isn’t it horrifying how we buy all the materials and bury it in the ground without a thought of where it would all stagnate?

Garbology aims at inflating this scarring question until we come to a new consciousness of “You are what you throw away,” from the old one, which says, “You are what you eat.”

The book, which terms us ‘garbage addicts’, charts out the journey of garbage right from our kitchens to its ultimate destination, which might be a landfill, a pristine ocean or simply a street. In the process, it also answers the mind-boggling questions of why we make it and what alternatives might be there.

Through examining reports from the US government, independent researchers and businesses, it was found that an average American produces 102 tons of garbage in a lifetime.

“What is the nature and cost of that 102-ton monument of waste? How is it possible for people to create so much waste without intending to do so or even realize they are doing it? Is there a way back from the 102-ton legacy, and what would that do for us… or to us?”

Humes dissects this amalgam of questions and addresses them each in the chapters.

Considering the garbage economy, United States is the biggest exporter of paper waste and scrap material to China where it is safely recycled.

The shipping of trash over 12000 miles in giant cargo vessels involves enormous environmental impact apart from the expenditure. The trash is then manufactured into products, shipped back to the US, where it is made into trash again. This is an ‘endless cycle, an incredibly wasteful process.’

In spite of the amount exported, America can shamefully boast of its largest active landfill, the Puente Hills which is 500m tall and has been the final resting place for the lion’s share of Los Angeles County’s ample daily flow of garbage for past 60 years.

It is “impressive. It’s also compelling, revelatory and horrifying all at the same time.”

How did these mountains of garbage come to be?

The problem of garbage disposal has been an issue for ages. While the Greeks, 2500 years ago, had created a municipal dump to reduce the amount thrown in the streets, the Romans washed it through their sewage system. There have been cases where cities have been constructed on elevated platforms over a pile of trash. Also, attempts have been made to get rid of it by burning, burying or simply shifting it to other cities.

Humes says that the concept of wastefulness was redefined in the 20th century. The sense of thrift was overcome by the advertisers and the government in power never adhered to the climate policies.

Now, Americans send 740000 tons of garbage a day to landfills, burying $50 billion in raw materials to create the heap of trash every year.

The incineration programmes planned to reduce the trash have been disastrous due to mismanagement.

Thus the building of Garbage Mountains continues in the name of sanitary landfills. While some of the materials decompose, a large amount of them take longer to decompose and in the meantime, fly away and end up in rivers, streams and ultimately in oceans where they are collected in ‘gyres’ formed by currents and winds.

This pollutes the habitat of various sea birds and other aquatic creatures.

The Great pacific patch stands as an unfortunate example of this accumulation of trash. It is chowder of plastic bits with floating detergent bottles, milk cartons floating around what ought to be a pristine blue surface thousands of miles from anywhere.

The plastic is weathered and broken down by the elements in the water to tiny bits, the size of phytoplanktons. These little bits of plastics get transformed into sponges, thereby releasing some dangerous chemicals into the marine environment. There are chances that the fish might consume these bits, mistaking it to be edible and thus these poisonous substances could become a part of our food chain.

This is a grave example of how our trash gets transformed to food.

Unfortunately, the mindset of the consumers is that once they get rid of garbage, they assume that there is someone out there who would keep a track of its flow. However, the fact is that once the use of the stuff is over, no one knows where it has gone.

This explains why our resources are polluted due to improper channelization of garbage, especially plastics.

The percentage of plastics as a waste has increased from 0.4% in 1960 to 11% in 2000. In 2011, New York city spent more than $300 million just transporting their trash.

Plastic industries have been prominent contributors to the economy. This explains why Chicobags have been targeted in legal battles by the Big Plastic Industry of America.

Ironically, the fight against plastic is at the highest ever peak now.

Humes, in his book,  talks about Bea Johnson’s family who live without the use of plastics. They seem to live a “lack of wastefulness lifestyle” following the motto: refuse rather than recycle whenever possible.

There are mentions of few other initiatives to fight the garbage problem.

“Pick of the litter”  is a program started by the artists in San Francisco to figure out the worth of the stuff in the dump as actual materials. “Chico and the Man” talks about the efforts of an entrepreneur to create a reusable shopping bag and to educate the people on the environmental benefits of avoiding the plastic bags. There is also a mention about the innovation led by MIT students to track garbage through cell phone tower triangulation.

There are a few cities which have been able to tackle the problem of garbage to some extent. Florida “recycles or composts half its trash, and burns the rest to make enough electricity to power thirty-six thousand homes”. Portland, Oregon efficiently uses 59% of its trash through recycling, composting and burning it for energy. Connecticticut residents make only about 5.5 pounds of trash each day.

Humes has conveyed with clarity, the need to inculcate wiser buying habits and slow down our trash production. After all, the materials in the landfills are those that we had paid for.

Re-use. Recycle. Reduce. And most importantly, Refuse.

Here is a Photostory on the issue of Rag pickers – A means of livelihood which encompasses the issues of dignity, caste, health and economy.