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Understanding the dynamics of the informal waste sector

To ensure sustainable and inclusive SWM in the city, it is essential to include the Informal Waste Sector in the conception of the challenges at hand as well as in deliberative processes. It is crucial that increased advocacy and analytical attention be paid to waste-picking and informal waste economies in Chennai. Our objective is to achieve greater inclusion and leveraging of informal waste sector in Chennai through advocacy and research.

Recycling and resource recovery are predictably at the heart of the reform agenda and currently done only by the Informal Waste Sector. The role and contributions of waste-pickers (the backbone of the informal waste sector) in particular have been largely ignored by the mainstream and by policy-makers. Consequently, their inclusion in purportedly public forums is sadly not assured.  This is compounded by the absence of research and data documenting and quantifying the activities of the informal sector.


The focus of the project is across the city of Chennai. We estimate that the population of waste pickers in the city is approximately 20,000. However, data on waste picker contribution to the city’s sustainability and their representation on conversations on SWM is conspicuously absent. In response to this context, we will research and document the layout and functioning of the informal waste network. We will do this in two ways: 1) Trail waste-pickers to document and quantify their labour and contributions in sustaining the city, and 2) Identify and map informal waste traders, recyclers, and manufacturing units operating in the city; nodal and terminal points in the informal waste network for further inquiries on the city’s informal waste economies.


We expect that our work will support greater inclusion and leveraging of the informal waste network in Chennai through research that can inform policy recommendations and social enterprise ventures. More specifically, we expect that the insights will represent the informal workers’ perspective in citizen-led and public forums on waste in the city, and facilitate waste pickers’ participation in meetings and events organised by such public forums.

Exploring The Lives of Chennai’s Hidden Environmentalists

In January 2017, I joined CAG, specifically to work on solid waste management (SWM) projects. I started with the Mapping Waste Trails project, which aims to gain a better understanding of the lives of the informal waste pickers engaged in waste recycling in Chennai. Furthermore, we will be tracking the movements of certain recyclables, to ascertain the routes by which such materials traverse the...know more