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Kabadiwalla Connect – an Indian technology start-up – is working to transform waste collection and management in cities in the Global South by using the Internet of Things (IoT) and building on the contribution of existing informal networks.
Why is Waste Collection Important?
Waste collection and management is a vital component of healthy, safe, and environmentally sound city management – with wider implications for the whole planet’s environmental wellbeing. However, effective waste collection and management is often unattainable in developing countries.
Research has shown that upper-middle-income countries’ populations see 86% of their solid waste collected effectively. In lower-middle-income countries, this is reduced to 68% and only 41% of solid waste is collected in low-income countries.
Lower-middle and lower-income countries have seen significant improvements in their rates of waste collection in recent decades. However, cities in these regions have also seen a concurrent and extreme rise in population and infrastructure growth – which has, in turn, led to the creation of much more post-consumer waste. This growth is particularly acute in cities in sub-Saharan African and south-east Asia.
Over half of the municipal solid waste management budgets in these cities are therefore spent on collection – despite only being able to retrieve around two-fifths of waste through municipal waste-management systems.
This in turn leads to less room in the budget for waste management, and therefore most of the post-consumer waste that is collected is sent to unmanaged landfill sites. This situation creates conditions for serious illnesses spreading among people living close to these dumpsites, including diarrhea, acute respiratory infections, and plague-like diseases.
Large, unmanaged landfill sites also lead to local and global environmental issues such as the atmospheric release of landfill gases, water pollution, and water-borne illnesses that devastate local ecosystems.
These problems are exacerbated by infrastructure issues with municipal waste management systems. Poor route planning, lack of available information about collection schedules (and inconsistent schedules in the first place), poor roads, and a lack of suitable vehicles all contribute to the problems of waste in developing countries’ growing cities.
As many of these issues are related to the high cost to municipalities of their centralized municipal waste management system, turning to the informal waste ecosystem that exists in these cities may provide a solution.
Inclusive Waste Management for Cities in the Global South | Understanding Informality
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The Informal Waste Ecosystem
The informal waste ecosystem is the network of individuals and micro-enterprises who make their livings from waste collection outside of the municipal framework. These are people who collect waste from residences, businesses, and the street and then sell it to aggregators for recycling or through scrap shops and micro-recycling operations.
This important and often unrecognized work is typically carried out by the poorest and most marginalized workers in already poor cities. It is not desirable work and is typically only undertaken as a result of dire economic circumstances.
Still, an estimated 2% of urban populations in cities in Asia and Latin America rely on this informal waste collection activity for their livelihoods. These people pick waste, sell it on to aggregators, who sort it into coarse-level categories (paper, plastic, glass, and metal), and then sell on to specialist wholesalers who work with recycling processors.
Although often neglected in research, some recent studies have shown that these informal waste ecosystems can result in positive environmental impact and lower waste management costs for municipal budgets.
However, attempts to organize such ecosystems have been neglected in solutions and proposals to deal with waste in developing countries. This is despite the fact that, crucially, studies have shown that “the less organised the informal recycling sector is, the less the people involved are capable of adding value to the secondary raw materials they collect, and the more vulnerable they are to exploitation from intermediate dealers” (Wilson, Velis and Cheeseman, 2006).
Kabadiwalla Connect is pursuing a data-driven pilot project in Chennai, India, which aims to provide more organization through digitization to help support the informal waste ecosystem.
The project relies on robust geospatial data collection, effectively mapping the local informal and formal waste ecosystem to find out exactly how post-consumer waste is collected in the city. This asset-based approach ensures an in-depth understanding of the entire informal waste ecosystem.
This mapping is a part of Kabadiwalla Connect’s reverse logistics approach to finding solutions for municipal waste management solutions. The company then implements digital, decentralized waste management solutions to effectively tackle the solid waste problem.
These include sensors in waste receptacles and an app-based digital network which individuals in the informal waste ecosystem can use to record and direct their waste collecting and management activities.
With this approach, Kabadiwalla Connect claims it can help municipalities to reduce their solid waste management budgets by up to 30% – allowing for better waste management in the future.
The active pilot is currently underway in Mylapore, Chennai. If successful, Kabadiwalla Connect intends to provide decentralized waste management solutions and other technology and informal sector integration projects in cities around south-east Asia.
References and Further Reading
Arfvidsson, Helen, David Simon, Michael Oloko and Nishendra Moodley (2016). “Engaging With and Measuring Informality in the Proposed Urban Sustainable Development Goal.” African Geographical Review. [Online] https://doi.org/10.1080/19376812.2015.1130636.
Bernache, Gerardo (2003). “The Environmental Impact of Municipal Waste Management: The Case of Guadalajara Metro Area.” Resources, Conservation and Recycling. [Online] https://doi.org/10.1016/S0921-3449(03)00029-6.
Downs, Mary and Martin Medina (2000). “A Short History of Scavenging.” Comparative Civilizations Review. [Online] https://scholarsarchive.byu.edu/ccr/vol42/iss42/4/.
Hande, Siddharth, Ganesh Kumar, Sonaal Bangera and Tharaka Abilash P (2020). “A Spatial Audit of Chennai’s Informal Waste Supply Chain: Rethinking Integration Strategies in the Global South.” Kabadiwalla Connect. [Online] https://gpsdd.kabadiwallaconnect.in.
Wilson, David C., Costas Velis and Chris Cheeseman (2006). “Role of Informal Sector Recycling in Waste Management in Developing Countries.” Habitat International. [Online] https://doi.org/10.1016/j.habitatint.2005.09.005.