Wastepickers on the Frontline of Climate Mitigation
This project has formalized waste collection at New Delhi’s main train station, enhancing
recycling and improving conditions for the low-caste workers. “Delhi’s Cooling Agents
– Wastepickers on the Frontline of Climate Mitigation” has made collection of
recyclable waste an official activity, and is already being copied at three other train stations in
- 120 wastepickers trained and organized
- 4 tons of waste handled from the New Delhi train station daily
- 675 tons of CO2 equivalent mitigated annually
Solid waste is responsible for more than three percent of greenhouse gas emissions in India. For example,
some 300 trains and 360,000 passengers pass through the New Delhi Railway Station daily, with vast amounts
of packaging waste produced from to-go-style food consumed. Previously, the train station lacked facilities
to manage this waste, which was strewn about or burned along the platforms. The waste that did end up
getting removed went to landfills, where it simply rotted, producing the potent greenhouse gas methane.
In India, people who gather recyclable materials are known as wastepickers. Although wastepickers form the
backbone of recycling in India, they are largely low-caste, poor, and marginalized, doing unsteady work in
Delhi’s Cooling Agents worked with non-governmental organizations and the Indian Railways agency to
support formalization of the wastepicker sector at the New Delhi train station. The wastepickers’
association Safai Sena trains and organizes wastepickers to collect
paper, cardboard, metal, plastic and glass from the train station, preventing waste from piling up there or
ending up in landfills.
The materials are brought to a recovery facility, where they are separated and sold to recycling mills.
Wastepickers have uniforms and identification cards, and collect waste from trash containers or directly
from the caterers. They are able to earn formally throughout the year, and are protected from the routine
abuse they previously suffered.
Helping the planet
Enhanced recycling prevents greenhouse gas emissions that would have been produced to extract raw
materials, which are also preserved. Items that would have rotted in landfills are reused, preventing
further emissions such as methane from the decomposition process. Since the waste is not burned, greenhouse
gases such as CO2 and dioxins have also been prevented. Better handling of solid waste also reduces
pollution from litter.
Wastepickers are typically treated like the waste they pick, especially due to the fact that most are
low-caste or Muslim. But through the formalization of the sector, this highly marginalized urban group has
gained dignity and respect. These people are now able to earn a steady living, and can better provide for
their families. They are also better able to access available social security and public health schemes.
Their waste-gathering activities have improved sanitation at the New Delhi train station, preventing the
spread of disease and creating a more pleasant environment for all who visit.
The Delhi’s Cooling Agents model is applicable to at least 35 per cent of railway stations in India.
The activity is highly modular, making it adaptable to other applications, as well. It’s also well
documented, which allows for easy replication. The fact that it is low-cost and financially self-sustaining
makes it easy to scale up in a low-resource context. Since project inception, the railway agency has
replicated the model at three other train stations.
Images owned by the activity partners, all rights reserved.