BANGALORE, India – In the peak of the afternoon heat, Sami Ahmed sits in a sliver of shade. Bearded, with a Muslim prayer cap, he watches his workers wade through newspapers, plastics, metals and scores of other materials in Jolly Mohalla, a vast scrap yard in the city’s center. For three generations, his family has worked as wholesale traders, collecting recyclable materials and selling them to manufacturers. He reckons there are 250 similar traders on site now, bringing in 700 trucks filled with scrap a day. They all operate under the city’s watchful eye but without its stamp of formality.
The city, Ahmed says, cannot manage its abundant waste on its own. They need people like him.
I met him midway through a day-long excursion with Daily Dump, a waste management advocacy organization here. The trip, called the Trash Trail, is a tour of waste’s path through this city—from its collection and processing to its removal, disregard or reuse. It's a peek into a complicated world of politics and culture, class and caste, one that few locals see.
For Poonam Kasturi, Daily Dump’s founder, many Bangaloreans remain willfully ignorant of where their waste goes. "In India," she says at the day's onset, "we’re famous for keeping our homes clean and our cities dirty."
That may be slowly changing. Bangalore, nudged along by a recent crisis and a group of vocal advocates, is setting itself up to be a model for cities in the developing and developed world alike of how to properly dispose of trash.
That strategy pivots around people like Ahmed.
Sandya Narayanan is a member of the solid waste management round table, a group that pushes for reforms. For them, India’s deep history of reuse is a unique strength. "Informal recycling is a huge plus," she tells me, "which we don’t have anywhere else in the world."
Near Kasturi’s house, a pourakarmika, or street sweeper, bends down to remove rubble, a city jacket placed over her sari. She is one of the ward’s 54 contracted workers. The teams clean the streets and clear—or more often attempt to clear—piles of garbage strewn everywhere. With its direct and contracted employees, the city now has roughly 20,000 workers in waste management.
By Kasturi's count, the informal waste disposal sector in the city is roughly three times that size.
A block away, another pourakarmika does the same routine as the first, only without the official uniform. A man on a rickshaw, his teeth stained red with paan, sorts through a mound for redeemable pieces. These individual sweepers, ragpickers and kabbadiwalas (scrap dealers), along with sizable informal wholesale operations like Ahmed’s, process around a third of the 3,500 tons of waste generated in the city per day.
The entire system came to an abrupt halt in August, when the city’s waste management employees, after a prolonged labor dispute, went on strike. Several of the landfills shut down. Even the wealthier corners of the city were faced with the unpleasant realities of unmoved rubbish. And considerable public health concerns, particularly of the spread of dengue fever, persisted after the workers returned.
For Narayanan’s group, the strike was a catalyst for Bangaloreans to adapt the principles of the informal recyclers—the "mom and pop stores" of waste, she calls them—to their homes. Since the strike, apartment complexes from around the city have been contacting them about methods for managing and composting trash.
Last month, the state’s highest court ruled that city residents must segregate dry and wet waste or face a fine. A private company agreed to process 1,000 tons of the latter. The city claimed it would make an aggressive push to offer recycling for the former.
Without the wealth to tax for recycling, but with a robust underground economy in place, Indian cities may begin to rely on private markets and informal ones simultaneously. It’s an approach that could inform other emerging nations, Narayanan argues. "This model is being tried out for the first time in Bangalore," she says.
As it is now, the city’s model is far from ideal.
On one designated corner, two young men jump out of a small pushcart with waste in the back. They work for a formal contractor. One heaves a three-pronged metal pick into the pile. He owns work shoes but prefers to go barefoot, he explains through a translator. Leaping to the left, his foot lands inches from a broken fluorescent light and a used syringe.
And the informal sector has even fewer safety and environmental regulations. When asked what has changed in the past five years, Ahmed says the amount of paper and plastic arriving at the scrap yard has skyrocketed. To dispose of plastic, some poorer communities burn it with other solid waste. Cows, sacred across most of the country, fall victim to the new proliferation—their stomachs wrapped and choked by the bags they eat on the street. Plastic bags, the Supreme Court concluded in May, are a greater threat to India than atomic weapons.
Bangalore, a hub of technology companies, also has a serious problem with the disposal of electronic waste. At this point, it is all relegated to the informal sector. Less than a mile from one of the city’s landfills, the makeshift homes of a squatter community sit next to piles and piles of discarded products. Residents will sift through them to see if anything is worth recovering.
Yet the movement to educate on safety and segregation and limit the waste shipped to the city’s landfills is gaining speed. Recently, local news programs have devoted segments to advocates, largely women, instructing homeowners how to compost their waste. With us for most of the Trash Trail was a news anchor and cameraman.
"Many people are looking for solutions," says Vani Murthy, the organizer of the round table. "In-house composting is catching on." Daily Dump says they've sold 10,000 composting units to Bangalore households so far, keeping 7,000 kilograms of organic waste from the landfills daily.
Parts of the city are even venturing into recycling medical waste, a tiny yet toxic fragment of its total. Madan Kumar, a consultant and recent returnee to his native city, volunteers on these initiatives. He is working with a local hospital on a plan in his neighborhood to collect discarded medicines directly, which the hospital can reuse or discard carefully. The process is catching on in the U.S., but only at select collection centers. Here, they have initial plans to set up bins inside ten apartment complexes.
"We lived in Berkeley, which is pretty progressive on these things," he says. "And I think we’d be way ahead of them, if we can actually collect medicines at source."