From trash-picker to “invisible environmentalist”

From the Fixes blog of the New York Times:

“Trash! Trash!” yelled Chandani Nagtilak as she pushed her cart through a residential complex.

An older woman put two bins on her porch steps and exchanged pleasantries in the local language, Marathi.  Chandani took the bins to her pushcart, where she and her colleague Rekha Shinde emptied them and began separating the contents into organic, recyclable and nonrecyclable waste.

Chandani wore a magenta sari under her uniform, a dark blue button-down shirt.  Earlier that morning, she had eaten a rich breakfast of poha and halwa, washed her hands with soap, and complained to her friends that her teenage son would rather gossip than study.

This is significant. For many years, Chandani couldn’t count on eating a good breakfast, washing with soap or rolling a pushcart. For more than 20 years, she has been a waste-picker in Pune (pronounced POO-nay), a city of six million.  During most of that time, she dressed in tattered clothes and hauled a back-aching bag as she fought off dogs while scouring for recyclables at a landfill.  She sometimes went without meals.  She sustained injuries.  Most hurtful, people often refused to make eye contact with her — except to call her a thief or a piece of trash.

That’s because her work has been formalized and people have come to appreciate the value of her services. In addition, waste management, recycling and composting are increasingly coming to be seen as vital to community health, environmental sustainability and quality of life around the world.

So how did Chandani go from being regarded as a thief to a potential house guest?

As with so many social changes, it began with organizing. In 1993, a collective called Kagad Kach Patra Kashtakari Panchayat (K.K.P.K.P.) was established in Pune, with an ambitious goal: to organize waste-pickers, one of the poorest and more marginalized segments of urban Indian society.  Waste-pickers are often uneducated, rural migrants who sift through trash heaps or landfills, looking for plastics and glass that they sell to middlemen by weight, who send them to be recycled.  This informal system results in recycling rates of almost 50 percent for plastics (as compared with 8.2 percent in the United States) — which is why activists call waste-pickers “invisible environmentalists.”

To read the complete story, click here.

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