Turning trash into cash, Amrita Chatterjee is all for inclusive and sustainable developmentBaishali Mukherjee
Amrita Chatterjee, the project leader of South Asian Forum for the Environment (SAFE), Kolkata helps rag-pickers turn trash into cash. How is that even possible, you’d ask. The social endeavour named ‘Resolve Trash to Cash’ defines an end-to-end awareness on solid waste segregation at source and its recycling for creating a value added return for a sustainable environment and development. The main focus is on solid waste management and to provide an alternative livelihood for poor slum dwellers and marginal women by waste recycling and imparting training on papier mache art. Recently, the endeavour received the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change UNFCCC Momentum for Change, Lighthouse Activity Award 2014, as part of COP 20, held in Peru, Lima in December.
Proper disposal of waste and its management is a major concern in metropolitan cities. There already have been massive losses on environment and natural resources in major towns and cities owing to dumping of solid waste and its improper management. “Kolkata city generates about 5000 tons of waste per day. In year 2010, survey by SAFE revealed that, about 86% of calculated value of urban waste in the metropolis of Kolkata has been reportedly found to be in the disorganized recycling and sustaining on unscientific and unethical waste management policy. More than 50% of the urban poor are engaged in this waste trade just as collectors, segregators or suppliers being exposed to various health hazards risk. Their earning is a nominal brokerage of 2-5% in an unstructured and non equitable revenue distribution system. We launched ‘Resolve Trash2 cash’ in 2011,” says Amrita.
Resolve Trash to Cash is the story of the street dwellers of Kolkata, who have turned out to be the most successful entrepreneurs in this rapidly changing world of economies and environment, social structures and infrastructure in the whirlpool of urban development and climate change. Nobody knows much about the women in the shanty towns of urban metros or the children in the footpath except the fact that they survive as the ‘citizens of dirt’ and that they are the most unwanted of all. “Through ‘Resolve Trash 2 Cash’ we discovered great entrepreneurs in the women of dirt, who just need technology cooperation and seed resources to be an entrepreneur like any other person from this generation. The programme envisaged a mammoth change in the urban perspective for the urban poor and the rich. The project envisaged a sustainable solution for the city’s waste so that it is climate adaptive, pro-poor and economically viable. The program banks on integrated municipal solid waste management through recycling, reusing and thereby reducing landfill and pollution. The mission of this women led enterprise has ever been that ‘Recycling is an art that sustains life and livelihood’. It empowered women not just to earn their bread but to earn the dignity of a mother who rears her children for a better tomorrow,” explains Amrita.
The efforts of Amrita Chatterjee have been recognised by United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) in their ‘Clean up the World Campaign.’ This waste recycling project is steadily taking shape as a micro-enterprise that develops entrepreneurial skills in slum dwellers. It provides social recognition and empowerment to those who were earlier socially ostracised. “SAFE began by holding workshops in slum areas to explain ways to earn cash from trash. The interactions also provided an opportunity to gauge the interest of the slum dwellers in being a part of the project. Those who volunteered to ‘give it a try’ were formed into Joint Liability Groups (JLGs) comprising 10 members each. The ﬁrst project was to make papier mâché gift items out of waste paper. Banks were approached to open accounts for the JLGs—a herculean task, as most of the JLG members had no documents as identify proof. Thanks to well- wishers and the sheer perseverance of SAFE ofﬁcials, UCO bank opened accounts for the JLGs. Training workshops conducted by master trainers began in earnest. All the JLG members were provided basic information on marketing strategies, business acumen, ﬁnance management and the basics of accounting. The women, for whom it was easier to stay at home and work, learnt ways to make gift items out of waste paper. Several corporate sector units volunteered to segregate trash at source so that the waste paper needed could be collected easily. Bins were placed in their ofﬁces to facilitate this. Male members of the JLGs were trained in communication skills to foster an ability to speak with conﬁdence when visiting the large and sometimes intimidating ofﬁces to collect the waste paper. SAFE helped in marketing the ﬁnished products at fairs, via social media and to the many corporate houses that purchase these as gifts. ‘Resolve: Trash to Cash’ is fully owned by the women members who elect representatives and have a say in decision making,” informs Amrita.Members and beneficiaries working with RESOLVE are mostly middle school drop outs or uneducated people from slum areas who are below the poverty line and earn their livelihood as road scavengers and rag pickers in waste dumps. 350 rag pickers are involved under the programme, covering three major slums of Kolkata. These pickers are from slums adjacent to waste landfills areas. ‘Resolve: Trash to Cash’ helps organise their efforts into a structured revenue return model through technology transfer and an understanding of ﬁnances.
“Economic empowerment has come by virtue of an increased income of nearly 35 per cent over previous earnings. Around 400 persons who participated in this programme directly or indirectly are now covered by micro ﬁnance insurance. Tata-AIG Life’s specially designed policy towards risk enabled this. On the environment side, a positive attitude toward the need to segregate waste at source has developed. This has resulted in reduction in landﬁll emission footprints and environmental pollution,” adds the project leader.
Allaudin Sheikh, a rag picker, had migrated to the city from the Sunderbans twenty years ago in search of a job. Today, he is thankful to Resolve for improving his lot.“I had never thought that one day I will enter these office premises in uniforms and photo ID cards. This project has taught me that a true effort can bring up a street dweller to the dais. I feel proud to be a part of this, I received an award from Apeejay group, and it is truly encouraging”.
Like Allaudin, Maya Mandal has also benefitted from this programme. She was a waste water fisher who barely made Rs 750-1800 per month and would suffer from skin ailments and acute intestinal disorders because of the conditions at work. Today, she is not only healthier but also earns five times more by making papier mache craft items and also has the wherewithal to send her children to school. She is also learning to read and write in Bangla. “For generations we survived as waste water workers. Never in my dreams even had I thought of paintings and handicrafts as an alternative livelihood that can make me free from this ugly, stinking work of waste water fisheries. Didi (Amrita) says that we too can do it if we do it together. We have learnt it from this project. We will continue to work for a better lifestyle and livelihood”.
The success of the paper waste recycling project has encouraged SAFE to introduce other projects as well. These include recycling of wet garbage into vermi compost that will reduce emissions from landﬁlls and at the same time promote sustainable agriculture. Another one focuses on the reuse of non-biodegradable plastic bottles as mould casts for creating home gardens.