The plastic paradox: pollution, caste and livelihoods

New Delhi, home to over 20 million people, took a major step towards climate mitigation when it banned all forms of single-use plastics in 2017. A few years later, the whole nation of India introduced a comparable ban. Yet, while plastics and plastic waste have been a huge burden in India, causing pollution and greenhouse gas emissions, it is also a source of income and livelihood for many waste pickers in India. So the question is, how can a Just Transition in plastic be encountered?

By Aishwaryaa Kunwar

Just Transition and the role of plastics

A "Just Transition" is a pivotal concept in the pursuit of a greener and more sustainable future. It embodies the idea that when societies and economies transition away from polluting and unsustainable practices, the process of this very transition should be equitable and inclusive. Above all, it recognizes that environmental change should not come at the expense of vulnerable communities, workers, or livelihoods. Within the broader endeavor of a Just Transition, plastic pollution emerges as a particularly complex and pressing challenge. Known for their durability and versatility, plastics have infiltrated nearly every aspect of modern life. However, their environmental consequences have grown alarmingly evident. Single-use plastics, in particular, have become emblematic of a throwaway culture that burdens landfills and pollutes oceans. In India, the context of Just Transition takes on a unique and compounded dimension.

Dr. Shyamala Mani, from the Public Health Foundation of India, stresses that what we really need to look at is our priorities and the kind of impact it is having. ”We have to dramatically reduce plastics in our environment and more importantly, in our usage”. But beyond the need to reduce usage of plastics significantly, one has to take into account that India’s plastic problems mirror its complex social fabric. On one hand, plastic waste pervades the environment, threatening ecosystems and public health. As Kawar Bir Singh, founder of Indian Birds points out, “Plastics in our ecosystems are pervasive. They are in our ocean, mountain ranges, freshwater habitats, and around the cities''. On the other, however, there is an almost-invisible army, often marginalized and disregarded, that collects, sorts, and recycles this very plastic waste, making a living from a pursuit that society and policies often overlook.

For decades, plastic waste has been the backbone of the livelihoods of countless waste pickers in the country. Informal workers scour the streets, landfills, and even the sea shores for discarded plastics. They sort, clean, and sell these materials to recycling units, contributing significantly to the informal recycling sector in India, which accounts for nearly 90% of the recycling effort in the country. This sector is a lifeline for many, providing jobs for an estimated 4-5 million waste pickers across the nation.

Banning plastics, but in a just way

In 2022, when India initiated the ban on single-use plastics, it intended to curb pollution and promote cleanliness. However, this move inadvertently marginalized the livelihood concerns of plastic waste pickers. While policies and awareness programs focused on the "littering issue," the underlying problems faced by these workers were often ignored.

Several initiatives are beginning to weave the threads of sustainability and social justice together. In Pune, for instance, SWaCH (Solid Waste Collection and Handling) cooperative empowers waste pickers by integrating them into the formal waste management system. This not only ensures better working conditions but also offers access to social security benefits like health care and education for their children.

Moreover, organizations like the All India Kabadi Mazdoor Mahasangh are advocating for the recognition of waste pickers as essential service providers, deserving of dignity, protection, and fair wages. These efforts are steps toward a Just Transition that honors the contributions of those who have long been invisible in the recycling chain.

Despite these promising initiatives, the path to a Just Transition in plastics is fraught with multifaceted challenges. The informal nature of their work leaves waste pickers vulnerable to exploitation, and they often face health hazards due to exposure to hazardous materials in the waste they collect. The growing privatization of waste management and the rise of waste-to-energy projects pose a significant threat to their traditional roles.

Additionally, the informal recycling sector faces competition from the influx of cheap virgin plastics, which discourages the recycling of existing materials. The introduction of Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) frameworks, which hold manufacturers accountable for the end-of-life disposal of their products, could further transform the recycling landscape and pose another form of competition for the informal recycling sector. India notified guidelines for the policy in 2022 and is therefore adapting to a system that, based on the 'polluter pays' principle, lays down responsibilities of all stakeholders engaged in the plastic industry and fines for violations. However, reports highlight that “only a proportion of producers, importers and brand owners have registered on a centralised portal that would track their plastic collection and recycling targets”. More work and effective implementation will be required for the country to reduce its plastic footprint, but also ways of adaptation for the informal sector of waste pickers needs to be discussed.

Jai Prakash Choudhary, General Secretary of Safai Sena, a collective of waste workers in Delhi puts the current state of affairs as follows: “Neither do we have a process of pre-empting harm and nor do we have a way of reducing material or in any way thinking of alternatives. We have no systemic way to do that.”

Another important factor in how waste management and a Just Transition are intervened is the prevalence of caste. The caste system that operates within India's waste management systems, influences the perceptions and treatment of waste pickers. Due to social stigma, waste pickers face pervasive social stigma, and their work is often considered "unclean”. They are subjected to social exclusion and discrimination. This system is built on and continues to sustain on Savarna notions of "purity" and "pollution," with certain tasks and occupations relegated to specific caste groups. As a result, waste picking, often viewed as a "polluting" occupation, is associated with marginalised caste communities, further perpetuating social inequities.

The SWaCH cooperative, which grew out of Pune’s local trade union for waste pickers and Kagad Kach Patra Kashtakari Panchayat (KKPKP), attempts to navigate this caste-based inequality with its worker-rights-oriented model, helming a pro-poor alternative to centralised waste collection. The cooperative and its operations are completely owned by the waste picker members themselves, most of whom are women from Dalit and marginalized castes.

This, however, is a rare example. Caste in India is deeply rooted and will require attention and action across various levels during a Just Transition. It poses a significant barrier to achieving a Just Transition in plastics in India. Addressing this issue requires not only environmental awareness but also a commitment to social justice, intersectionality and equity. India's journey toward a more sustainable future cannot truly be just unless it dismantles the chains of caste discrimination that persist in the realm of waste management.

What a Just Transition of plastic waste can look like?

  • Organized Systems for Waste Management and Recycling: Implementation of organized systems that will prioritize workers' needs, ensuring safer working conditions and fair compensation.
  • Fair Payment and Dignity: Recognize waste pickers' contributions with fair payment, dignity, and inclusion in the formal waste management sector.
  • Training, Enhanced Skill, and Awareness: Offer training and skill development programs that enhance workers' capabilities and increase awareness of environmentally sustainable practices.
  • Leadership from Local Governance and Worker Unions: Encourage leadership from local governance bodies and worker unions, fostering a sense of ownership and empowerment among waste pickers.
  • Micro-Credit Services and Social Protection Coverage: Provide access to micro-credit services to support income-generating activities and ensure social protection coverage for waste pickers.

The path ahead is challenging, but it is one that must be walked with determination, empathy, and a commitment to social justice.

What is Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR)?

Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR), as defined by OECD, is an environmental policy approach in which a producer’s responsibility for a product is extended to the post-consumer stage of a product’s life cycle.

EPR has been a growing environmental protection mechanism throughout the world since the 1980s and involves:

  • Shifting the responsibility (physically and/or economically; fully or partially) for treating end-of-life products from municipalities and taxpayers to producers.
  • Encouraging producers to take into account environmental considerations when designing their products.

Typical EPR policy instruments:

  • Take-back requirements assign responsibility to producers or retailers for the end-of-life management of products. through the establishment of recycling and collection targets, or of incentives for consumers to return the used product.
  • Economic and market-based instruments provide a financial incentive in several forms:
    • Deposit-refund: an initial payment (deposit) is made at purchase and is fully or partially refunded when the product is returned.
    • Advanced Disposal Fees (ADF): fees levied at purchase based on the estimated costs to finance post-consumer treatment of the products.
    • Material taxes: involve taxing virgin materials (or materials that are difficult to recycle, contain toxic properties, etc.) so as to create incentives to use secondary (recycled) or less toxic materials.
    • Upstream combination tax/subsidy (UCTS): a tax paid by producers subsequently used to subsidise waste treatment.
  • Standards such as minimum recycled content can encourage the take-back of end-of-life products, and it can strengthen incentives for the redesign of products.

EPR and the informal sector:

  • A common challenge faced by emerging and developing countries in applying EPR policies is how to deal with the large informal sector that relies on these waste streams for their livelihoods. They often perform useful functions that are not provided by the formal sector in their countries, which would be interfered with by the introduction of an EPR system.
  • Therefore, there is a need to include the EPR system to ensure effective waste management operations, achieve recovery targets, and facilitate affordable and sustainable financing in countries where established waste management systems are limited. Inclusion also provides opportunities for providing informal workers with sustainable livelihoods as well as improved health and social protection.
  • Experiences of inclusion could be seen in many countries, from Asia, Africa to South America, while an example of the informal sector being excluded from EPR in Bulgaria could be a good lesson.

The views expressed in this article are not necessarily those of FES.

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