This is Trivandrum, India’s most southern city, and Kerala’s state capital. 


Gandhi once called it, ‘the evergreen city of India’.


But until recently, the city was better known as a plastic graveyard. Myriads of plastic bottles littered every corner of the Keralan landscape – crunched under feet on busy streets, back yards, and even in holy sites. 


Today there’s barely a bottle in sight; the result of a nationwide, new prerogative for India to clean up its recycling act.


But behind the now gleaming streets of Kerala, lies a recycling system profiting off the poorest of the poor. Just how has a country with such a propensity to litter, achieved some of the highest recycling levels in the world?


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Wandering under the coconuts fields of Kovalam, I meet Ambu, a 76-year-old grandmother.


Since tourism has increased in her area, the consumption of plastic bottles has risen to over 5000 a day; a city initiative to pay for every bit of recyclable waste brough to the sorting offices, seemed like a bright idea: addressing both the city’s high rate of poverty and its environmental degradation.


But a lack of regulation of this initiative has led to a worrying trend: opportunistic local restaurants and hotel owners now sell their waste bottles to desperate collectors like Ambu; and the collectors who stand most to benefit from the scheme, struggle to survive.


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The ride to the local waste shop, locally known as the ‘Akri shop’ is about 3 km.  

It costs Ambu approximately 4 dollars for the ride.  If she earns less than this for her load; she is making a loss, and cannot pay the driver.



Because the recycling industry operates in large volumes, it does not have any direct contact with individual waste pickers.  The Akri shops act as the intermediaries; they buy any recyclable materials from local pickers, and sell them on to the big factories, in other parts of the Indian sub-continent.


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This is Ganeshan.  His business is not just an ‘Akri shop’; but also a small recycling factory.


As the only plastic recycler in Trivandrum, Ganeshan could be entitled to receive various development grants from national and international environmental foundations; but where could he turn to, and who could assist him with the complicated processes of applying for small business grants?


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Closer to the city center, we meet a group of women wearing green outfits.  These are Trivandrum’s rubbish collectors. 


They form a door-to-door waste collection scheme.



They tend to live in the same neighborhoods, and work walking distance away. 


They are an organized ‘co-op’ initiated by Trivandrum city Council.



Although they have to register daily in a Council office, they are not paid any wages. 

Instead, they are left to charge their own customers for collections.


The group gathers to sort the non-biodegradable waste collected, and salvage any materials they can sell.  With temperatures in the high 30s and 100% humidity, it’s a tiring, and painfully slow job.


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This is Villapisalla, Trivandrums landfill.  Any of the waste that cannot be sold arrives here in a train of trucks traveling through the night.


With high temperatures and humidity levels, the smell here makes it hard to breath. But the landfill is an incredibly important part of the city’s recycling policy; recycling nearly 80% of its rubbish.  Most of the biodegradable waste becomes agricultural manure, and is sold to local farmers at a subsidized cost.  The 20% waste that cannot be recycled, mostly comprises of plastic bags.




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The informal and unorganized waste pickers are left unprotected, and are always paid far too little to break away from poverty.


Local pickers and micro recyclers can be a great asset to society, especially at a time when resources are dwindling, their contribution is particularity important. 



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