The Story Of Chennai's Kabadiwalla Ecosystem
Chennai generates 4,500 tons of solid waste per day, which ends up in both of its landfills. It also hosts an informal sector that comprises a robust ecosystem of scrap dealers who recover and recycle incredible amounts of waste every day. Kabadiwalla Connect created an information service so that waste is diverted away from landfills and channeled to these scrap dealers or “kabadiwallas.” We hope that in the long run this keeps a significant amount of waste out of landfills, while increasing the kabadiwallas’ income and creating a platform for discussions to include them in waste management policy.
Our survey methodology
Using our initial 50-question survey, we set out to map the areas of Guindy, Velachery, Adyar and Besant Nagar. These four areas make up “Zone 13,” part of the corporation zone system used to divide the city into 15 zones and further into wards. We are mapping kabadiwallas based on this zone system, proceeding one ward at a time until we complete an entire zone (for a break up of the localities included in the zones we have completed so far, see the table below). Zone 13 data was the first to be available on our information service.
The survey was complex and yielded excellent data, but was obstacle-ridden, often steering the interview out of the comfort zone of the interviewee. We subsequently shortened the survey and used this to map Zones 8 and 9. After a tedious data cleaning and number-crunching process, we finally uploaded the data from these two zones. We also found the information that people wanted most was the kind of material that kabadiwallas dealt with, so we incorporated this into “Version 2” of the information service.
Our amazing invisible recyclers
What emerged from our surveys is an amazing landscape of information on the informal sector ecosystem — largely invisible yet intrinsically interwoven into the urban environment. The data paints an enlightening picture of frugal yet efficient adaptation, juxtaposed against the stark image of low-income urban livelihoods.
Did you know that there are over 600 kabadiwallas in these three zones alone? They recycle over 900,000 bottles every month, among numerous other materials, and generate staggering revenues.
What we have learned so far
The initial insights paint a picture of the informal ecosystem that has hitherto eluded the public eye due to a lack of interest and in-depth research. However, more recently there has been increasing discussion around the importance of the informal sector in solid waste management, and in developing countries on the whole. This is one of the overarching themes of our work and we hope to bolster this through well-grounded primary and secondary research.
The primary survey has given us an incredible insight into the complex tapestry of waste flows, partnerships and processing activities of the informal waste ecosystem’s primary aggregators, who form the base of the waste chain. Below, we have described our most interesting observations.
The nature of the Kabadiwalla ecosystem
Kabadiwalla shops, for the most part, are small enterprises with an average of one to two employees. The average age of a business is 12.5 years. Amazingly, we found a kabadiwalla in Chepauk who has been around for 65 years! This is a telling fact about how robust these enterprises are; no matter how much technology and urban infrastructure develop over decades, professions as elementary as scrap dealing and waste picking remain indispensable.
Another convenient feature of this ecosystem is that most enterprises organize residential collection. This is usually done by tricycle, mini truck or a motorized tricycle called a “meen body vandi.” We included the kabadiwallas’ phone numbers on the information service specifically so that more people are incentivized to call them leading to an overall increase in usage. More than 55 percent of them already organize door-to-door collection.
Understanding their distribution and the threat of gentrification
We found that only a small percentage of kabadiwallas own their shop space. In Zone 13, 10 percent of the 204 kabadiwallas and 67 percent rent. In Zones 8 and 9, 13 percent own their space while 86 percent rent. We also noticed that kabadiwallas tend to be concentrated in lower income areas. In several upmarket localities they were completely absent.
There could be many reasons for this. One primary driver is the fact that kabadiwallas can’t afford the rents in upmarket localities. MRC Nagar and Besant Nagar are prime examples. In Besant Nagar, the only kabadiwallas are found in small lanes among lower income houses. As neighborhoods gentrify, they run a risk of losing their kabadiwallas due to unaffordable local rents. This requires a concerted policy intervention to ensure that they are allowed to remain there, given the important role they play in managing local recyclable waste.
What do kabadiwallas buy from us?
Most revealing to the Kabadiwalla Connect team, was that the kabadiwalla network has a tried and tested system of waste categorization based on the sale price a particular material. These price points in turn are governed by the availability of back-end infrastructure for that particular category. Paper is divided into newspaper, cardboard, white paper, magazines, etc. Newspapers are further separated into Tamil and English newspapers, as the quality of paper used is different resulting in a different price point for each. Paper unsurprisingly has a strong back-end processing infrastructure and is widely recycled.
Plastic is similarly divided into a number of categories, many of which are local terms based on the kind of product they are derived from. For example “bommai” is the plastic used to make dolls — bommai means doll in Tamil — though bommai plastic is now used to refer to a whole range of plastic goods, typically thicker plastic like molded chairs or Sintex tanks.
The vast majority of kabadiwallas take paper, plastic, glass and metal. Some of them take rubber and e-waste as well. Several of them have additional specializations in particular types of material such as old cloth. One particular kabadiwalla even takes old X-ray sheets. Click on a particular kabadiwalla shop on our information service to see the broad categories of waste they handle.
How much do they make?
It is a common misconception that waste does not provide a promising revenue source. One figure that stood out was 30 percent of kabadiwallas in Zone 13 and 22 percent in Zones 8 and 9 earn over Rs. 50,000 per month (approx. $750)! The majority seem to be in the Rs. 10,000 – 20,000 bracket (approx. $150-300), but as we said in our earlier post this is heavily dependent on the degree of specialization and access to markets. One particular kabadiwalla in Thiruvanmiyur (whom we alluded to in the earlier post) earns over a lakh a month purely because he has narrowed his focus down to paper, which he sources from a number of printing presses.
The most startling figures are from the total revenue generated every month in each zone when separated by waste category. Data from Zone 13 shows that, on average Rs. 35.6 lakhs ($53,250) worth of electronic waste alone is purchased every month and sold for about Rs. 39.6 lakhs ($59,234). The total monthly revenue from all waste categories sold in Zone 13 amounts to approximately Rs. 1.3 crores ($194,450) from 204 kabadiwallas. In Zones 8 and 9, the average monthly turnover from paper and plastics alone amounts to Rs. 1.5 crores ($224,366)! This is in just two zones – one can extrapolate these figures to get a rough idea of the total revenue that paper and plastic brings to the informal sector in all of Chennai’s 15 zones.
The most important finding, contrary to popular belief, is that dealing in scrap can be very profitable with the appropriate knowledge and access to more waste sources.
How much do you make selling to an average kabadiwalla?
The average purchase price of paper across all categories is Rs. 9 ($0.13). This is the price that you, as a resident, could get for a kilogram of paper if you sell to a kabadiwalla. The average purchase price of plastic per kilogram amounts to Rs. 16 ($0.24), significantly higher than paper. While prices of individual categories of plastic for example vary from as low as Rs. 2 ($0.03)/kg for waste plastic, they may also go as high as Rs. 20 ($0.3)/kg for white plastic, a trend noticed across waste categories.
It is interesting that this information remains largely unknown to the majority of the urban population. We hope that our service will provide better accessibility to such information and in turn drive more residents to send their dry waste to kabadiwallas.
Celebrating our invisible recyclers
Our mapping of the first three zones has provided enough data to uncontestably champion the use of the scrap dealer network. We now have actual numbers that tell us that they already source an immense quantity of waste which they sort, aggregate and sell up the waste chain.
Unfortunately, kabadiwallas still face a number of socioeconomic issues such as marginalization and social exclusion. A paradigm shift in the way society views them is long overdue. This calls for greater discussion on the inclusion of the informal sector in the more formal waste management institutions.
It comes at no extra cost to you to segregate your wet and dry waste, but it could mean the difference between breaking even and making a reasonable income for the kabadiwalla. On a grander note, it could change the face of urban solid waste management in Chennai.
Commissionerate of Municipal Administration, 2008 – Ready Reckoner on Municipal Solid Waste Management on Urban Local Bodies
Environmental Resource Management Report (1996) Municipal Solid Waste Management Study for the Madras Metropolitan Area, ERM report, Londond W1M 0ER