Understanding the World of the Informal Waste Picker


12:20 AM

1 min read
Understanding the World of the Informal Waste Picker Blog Image

Why in News?

  • International Waste Pickers Day, observed on March 1, serves as a distressing reminder of the challenges faced by informal waste pickers worldwide.
  • Despite their critical contributions, these workers face systemic marginalisation, health hazards, and exclusion from legal protection frameworks.
  • Therefore, often-overlooked world of informal waste pickers in India, their indispensable yet invisible roles in waste management systems need to be understood.

Challenges Faced by Informal Waste Pickers

  • Systemic Marginalisation
    • Informal waste pickers, comprising primarily women, children, and the elderly, represent one of the most hyper-marginalised cohorts in the waste management ecosystem.
    • The Periodic Labour Force Survey (PLFS) 2017-18 highlights that within India's urban workforce, nearly 1.5 million waste pickers operate, half of whom are women.
    • This vulnerable demographic undertakes hazardous work, collecting an average of 60 kg to 90 kg of waste daily without proper safety equipment.
    • Moreover, their subordinate position in the caste hierarchy exacerbates their already precarious situation, leading to health issues (dermatological and respiratory problems), along with regular injuries.
  • Economic Uncertainty
    • Their irregular work, low income, and susceptibility to exploitation create a cycle of poverty that is difficult to escape.
    • The Alliance of Indian Waste Pickers (AIW) report in 2023 underscores the impact of private sector participation in municipal solid waste management.
    • By employing expensive machinery and offering competitive rates to waste generators, private actors marginalise informal pickers, compelling them to resort to hazardous waste picking activities, such as scavenging from dump sites.
    • This not only heightens their health risks but also compromises their income and social status.
  • Lack of Recognition and Representation
    • The invisibility of informal waste pickers in policy and legal frameworks compounds their struggles.
    • Despite being an integral part of waste management systems, they are often excluded from decision-making processes.
    • The non-recognition of their contribution and the absence of representation in discussions around waste management policies create a void in advocacy for their rights.
    • The result is a group of workers left without legal protections, social security, and a voice in shaping the very systems they contribute to.
  • Exclusion of Informal Waste Pickers
    • The entry of private players in municipal solid waste management, while bringing technological advancements, further alienates informal waste pickers.
    • Dump sites are often cordoned off, limiting their access, and pushing them into further vulnerability.
    • The privatisation of waste management, as highlighted by the AIW, not only sidelines informal pickers but also poses threats to their health, income, and overall well-being.
    • This exclusionary approach further deepens the divide between formal and informal waste management sectors.

Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) and its Potential

  • EPR offers a promising framework by transferring the responsibility of waste management from municipal authorities to those who produce commercial waste.
  • It signifies a departure from the traditional "end-of-the-pipe" waste management approach, encouraging producers to adopt eco-friendly practices, reduce waste generation, and take an active role in recycling.
  • In theory, EPR holds the potential to integrate social inclusivity by acknowledging the role of informal waste pickers and other grassroots actors.

Concerns and Complexities Surrounding EPR Pertaining to Informal Waste Pickers

  • Implementation Issues: Diverting Waste from Informal Sector
    • Despite its noble intentions, the practical implementation of EPR has raised concerns about its impact on the informal waste sector.
    • Women in Informal Employment: Globalizing and Organizing (WIEGO) highlights that EPR guidelines often redirect waste away from the informal sector.
    • This redirection threatens the livelihoods of informal waste pickers, potentially leading to large-scale displacement.
    • The promise of social inclusion through EPR encounters a stark reality wherein the informal sector, a crucial component of waste management, risks being sidelined.
  • Neglecting Informal Waste Pickers
    • The AIW has observed a significant oversight in the formulation and implementation of EPR guidelines in India.
    • While stakeholders identified in the guidelines include the CPCB, producers, brand owners, industry associates, civil society organisations, and citizens, the specific inclusion of informal waste pickers or their representative organisations is notably absent.
    • This exclusion contradicts the principles of social justice and sustainability that EPR is designed to uphold.
  • Conflict Between Solid Waste Management Rules and EPR Guidelines
    • The conflict between the Solid Waste Management Rules 2016 and the EPR Guidelines 2022 adds another layer to the challenges faced by informal waste pickers.
    • While the former mandates the inclusion of waste pickers in municipal solid waste management systems, the latter fails to prioritise their participation.
    • This disconnect underscores the need for a coherent and integrated approach to waste management policies, where the rights and contributions of informal waste pickers are recognized and protected.

Way Forward

  • Recalibration of EPR Policies
    • For EPR to fulfil its promise of sustainable waste management and social inclusion, a recalibration of its guidelines is imperative.
    • Recognising the traditional knowledge possessed by waste pickers and involving them in decision-making processes can enhance the effectiveness of EPR systems.
    • Additionally, stakeholders, including producers and policymakers, must actively engage with informal waste pickers and their representative organizations to ensure a fair and just transition.
  • Plastic Treaty and a Just Transition
    • Globally, waste pickers contribute significantly to sustainable recycling, collecting, and recovering up to 60% of all plastic.
    • Despite their vital role, their work is undervalued, and they struggle to earn a decent living.
    • The imminent global Plastic Treaty, aiming to address plastic pollution, must ensure a just transition for these workers, recognising their contributions and safeguarding their livelihoods.


  • As India faces a rising tide of plastic waste generation, the importance of integrating informal waste pickers into waste management frameworks becomes increasingly evident.
  • As the traditional knowledge possessed by these workers could enhance the effectiveness of EPR systems, it is crucial to rethink EPR norms and actively involve millions of informal waste pickers in a legal framework.
  • International cooperation and local initiatives must converge to recognise, protect, and empower these invisible workers, creating a more inclusive and resilient waste management ecosystem.

Q1) What is the End of the Pipe waste management strategy?

The "End of the Pipe" waste management strategy refers to managing waste at the final stage of the disposal process, typically after it has been generated and collected. This approach focuses on treating or disposing of waste in an environmentally responsible manner. 

Q2) How does the Alliance of Waste Pickers contribute to sustainable waste management in India?

The Alliance of Waste Pickers contributes to sustainable waste management in India by promoting the inclusion of waste pickers in the overall waste management framework. Through their advocacy efforts, the alliance helps establish better working conditions, fair wages, and social security for waste pickers. Furthermore, they emphasise the importance of waste segregation, recycling, and reducing environmental impact. By integrating the expertise of waste pickers, the alliance plays a pivotal role in fostering a more sustainable and inclusive approach to waste management in the country.

Source: The Hindu