PUNE — Every morning Rebecca Kedari pulls a cart through an upmarket neighborhood in this city of 3.3 million to collect household waste

Ten years ago Rebecca would not even been able to enter this area of Pune, in western India. “Before I had to go outside the city to look for dry waste and bring it back. The work conditions were bad and collecting the waste took me at least 6 hours,” she says.

She now wears a local government identity card, has a health insurance plan, and is part of the KKPKP — a waste pickers' union set up in the 1990s. After 20 years of activism, Rebecca and 3,000 other women are now the official waste collectors of Pune.

The wet waste Rebecca collects goes to a sorting center. There, small pieces of plastic, cardboard and other dry materials are picked out by hand. What’s left over is put through a machine that chops it up finely to make high-quality compost.

Sudjata Imtiaz Khan works here: "I started working as a ragpicker when I was seven, to help my mother. Back then the only food we had to eat was what people would give us. Now the work has become easier because we can pick up the trash right at the door. I earn 3,000 rupees ($100) plus another 3,000 rupees per month from selling the dry waste per month.” 

Photo: SWaCH Facebook page

It’s enough for her to pay back the loan she took to pay for her daughter's wedding and send her three other children to school — and give them the education she never had. “I feel proud that my children can go to school now even though I didn’t.”

Aparna Susarla is from the cooperative behind this SWaCH (Solid Waste Collection and Handling) project. This local association is the first of its kind in India to recycle waste in such a decentralized way. “SWaCH is a cooperative of self-employed waste pickers," se explains. "Waste pickers are on the governing body of this cooperative, which means they are the decision makers.”

Other areas in India are looking into what’s happening in Pune — paying special attention to the successful cooperation between local government and a strong labour union.

Rebecca says collectivity is the key: “You need a lot of waste pickers to do this because they know what everything is worth. I know exactly what to look for. I’m not ashamed of my work, I feel proud about what I do. There are people who respect me for it — what other people think, I don’t care”

Rebecca says that she has also become friends with some of the wealthier residents, and sometimes even has breakfast with them.

Aparna Susarla says it’s been good for the home owners too. "They see the waste picker directly coming to their house. They interact with them daily," she explains. "There is a sense of accountability between people and the waste picker. So they know that whatever waste they have generated, she has to pick it up, so they better manage it properly.