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Works not Waste -- Visions for a Green Economy

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The Rio+20 meeting is just a few weeks away. Sitting here in India's sixth largest city, Pune, there is evidence of deep transformation since the last United Nations Conference on Environment and Development in Rio, in 1992. The last time around, in the Rio Declaration, people were placed at the center for sustainable development. And poverty was identified as an obstacle to sustainable development. These years later, one group of the poor -- wastepickers -- have organized as the Global Alliance of Waste Pickers. They are meeting at Pune for a workshop. Wastepickers are a widespread phenomenon in the developing world, and seen only occasionally elsewhere. They rummage through trash and pick out plastics, paper, cardboards and metals, selling these to waste dealers who finally sell it to factories that will recycle these materials. These wastepickers are demanding a place of honor within the green economy -- a key theme is this year's Rio+20 meet.

The green economy is a term people either love or hate. Its critics interpret it as a system that expands existing economic systems via businesses such as GM, or mass harvesting of natural resources at the cost of protecting people and the planet. Those invested in the idea see it as an economy that acknowledges the services and needs of the poor with benefits accrued directly to them. For them, the green economy also means of non-hazardous work, breaking out of poverty and enjoying one's basic rights. This is what the wastepickers, gathered here in Pune, all seem to collectively want -- to participate in the kind of green economy they'd vote for. Unfortunately, most of them remain untouched by this idea. It's a tragic indicator of the state of the developing world's cities that from Mali to Argentina, the world's recyclers recount being excluded from city waste handling systems, and public humiliations, before some of them describe their relatively recent success. Cities, we realize, a whole generation after Rio, still remain severely unequal and cruel to the poor. Even towards wastepickers, their best recyclers, who save significant greenhouse gas emissions.

Still, wastepickers share their aspirations. Esther Kosi from Ghana, a landfill based wastepicker, she also sews theatre costumes when she is commissioned. From her work on Accra's dumps, she has brought up four children. The oldest, at 26, is educated and currently between jobs. "We don't have a relationship with people whose waste we recycle -- we have to built it up," she points out. Maria Christina from Argentina, representing a local co-op, El Ceibo, understands people differently. "We need to reclaim ourselves before we reclaim waste," she announces. Her sentiments are widely applauded, because the wastepickers all call for being better organized.

There are some causes for celebrations. In metro Manila, the local municipality has helped the wastepickers to pick the recyclables they want and even convert plastics into high value pellets. In Pune, the SWACH co-operative picks up waste at the doorstep from over 45 percent of the city, creating green jobs. In Delhi, Safai Sena similarly picks waste from the New Delhi area but also collects toxic electronic waste, diverting it to clean recyclers.

This is what an important part of the green economy looks like then -- propelled by small or medium organizations, operationalized under safe conditions by skilled wastepickers and addressing one of the world's more pressing environmental challenges. Many of these ideas were nascent in 1992. But Rio+20 must take note and embrace this model of a green economy. Over 20 million people on the planet are asking for it.

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