Delhi’s Cooling Agents – 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 India.

Fast facts:

  • 120 wastepickers trained and organized

  • 4 tons of waste handled from the New Delhi train station daily

  • 675 tons of CO2 equivalent mitigated annually

The problem

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 subhuman conditions.

The solution

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.

Helping people

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.

Spillover effect

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.