A Safai Sathi is enjoying her new-found financial independence. Photo Credit: Abhir Avasthi/UNDP India

Two years back, if you had told Mohammad Nazar of Bihar that he would find himself working in a plastic waste factory in southern India, he would have laughed it off. And yet – 18 months after the first case of Covid 19 was detected in India, that’s exactly what he does for a living – helping recycle plastic waste and reduce its impact on the environment in one of the fastest growing cities of India, Bengaluru.

Working at the Swachhta Kendra, set up under UNDP’s plastic waste management programme – Project Prithvi - in partnership with Hindustan Coca Cola Beverages (HCCB) Private Limited, the job has given Mohammad a chance to earn a decent livelihood.

Plastics constitute a growing threat to our environment - and in turn, human well-being - affecting the world’s freshwater systems and marine resources, as well as terrestrial biodiversity and public health.

In India, where plastic use is rising, most cities and towns do not have an integrated solid waste management system. This means that very little plastic waste is properly collected or disposed of, resulting in a massive waste-management challenge as cities continue to grow.

Swachhta Kendra helps divert plastic waste from landfills to recyclers. Photo Credit: Gaurav Menghaney/UNDP India

In Bengaluru, plastic is estimated to occupy 20% of the 4000 tonnes of municipal solid waste generated. According to the Karnataka State Plastic Association, plastic consumption in the city is approximately 16 kg per person every month.

In this context the ‘circular economy’ concept - an economic system intended to eliminate waste and the ever-increasing use of resources - offers a pathway to more sustainable resource management. It means reduced production, use, and safe disposal of plastics.

For Safai Sathis (Waste pickers) like Mohammed, the Swachhta Kendra (SK) or Material Recovery Facility that was set up in 2019, has provided a job that pays well – something that was hard to come by given the Covid-19 induced economic glut. The Bengaluru SK is managed by ‘Hasiru Dala’, a social impact organization that works with waste pickers and other waste workers to ensure a life with dignity. Hasiru Dala is Kannada for Green Energy.

Mohammad Nazar at work at the Swachhta Kendra operated by Hasiru Dala in Bengaluru. Photo Credit: Abhir Avasthi/UNDP India

SKs are an integrated facility which not only handle plastic waste but also do value addition tasks such as shredding and bailing, making it suitable for recyclers. This processed plastic finds use in building roads, making water pipes for agriculture use, furniture, thus creating resource efficiency, and supporting a circular economy. The SKs are powered by advanced machinery to ensure recycling of all kinds of plastic waste along the value chain, thus making the project a zero-landfill operation.

This facility was made possible by a collaboration between UNDP-HCCB under Project Prithvi and has managed to provide an assured income to the 76 workers here, despite the disruptions of COVID-19 pandemic.

Mohammad who was a farm labourer in Bihar before joining the SK now earns Rs. 14,500 per month and is also provided with the security of a Provident Fund - far more than what he would have made on his farm.

“I am able to send Rs. 10,500 home every month. This pays for food and living expenses of my family, and the school fees of my siblings,” said Mohammad.

Given the nature of their job, Safai Sathis often face discrimination instead of being recognized for their contributions in reducing environmental hazards and carbon footprints. This intervention seeks to recognize the economic and environmental contributions by Safai Sathis. It has also helped them secure occupational identity cards through the city’s municipal corporation and access Government welfare schemes.

Forty-year-old Jabeen Raj says she has finally found a place that respects Safai Sathis and doesn’t look down upon them.

“When you are involved in work that includes cleaning waste, people look at you like you are an inferior person. The fact that I am treated with respect and dignity at my workplace makes me feel good about working here,” says Jabeen who also works at the Safai Kendra.

Jabeen Raj, a Safai Sathi of the Hasiru Dala SK, hopes to pay off her family’s debt. Photo Credit: Abhir Avasthi/UNDP India

Project Prithvi has processed and recycled more than 3700 metric tonnes of plastic waste and diverted it from reaching landfills or the sewage system in Bengaluru alone. Running in over 30 cities of India, Project Prithvi aims to manage more than 85,000 MT of plastic waste by 2022 and onboard more than 30,000 Safai Sathis by expanding to 50 cities. Within three years of its launch, Project Prithvi has managed 83,000 MT of plastic waste scientifically and generated revenues of INR 516 million through the sale and recycling of plastic waste.

In a world that is teeming with plastic waste and threatening all life, such ventures are not only the need of the hour but also offer employment opportunities to a community that plays a pivotal role in the fight against climate change.

Gowramma, 27 says the income from this job — Rs. 14,500 is much higher than what she would have made elsewhere doing similar work.

Gowramma, a Safai Sathi is enjoying her new-found financial independence. Photo Credit: Abhir Avasthi/UNDP India

“It has made me financially independent. Earlier, I had to ask my husband for every small amount of money. Now I can contribute to the monthly house income, pay school fees for my children and save a little,” says Gowramma.

“We all know what plastic waste does to the environment. At least I am doing something about it,” Gowramma says with a smile.

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