Rapid urbanisation creates trash. With an urban population of 377m generating an estimated 62m tonnes of waste per year, India is familiar with this connection. As more people move to cities, municipal authorities are struggling to deal with mountains of trash. A report by the government’s planning commission estimates India’s waste levels will rise to 165m tonnes by 2031, and will be 436m tonnes in 2050.
Municipal services are poorly equipped to handle the segregation and recycling of waste due to technological, bureaucratic, and financial handicaps. The government found that of the 62m tonnes generated in 2014, more than 80% was disposed indiscriminately at dump yards and landfills.
Trash Generation in India, 2014-50
The central government has tried, but failed, to remedy the trash problem. In 2014, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi launched the Clean India Movement. While the campaign did not address waste management at the policy level, it raised national consciousness about the cleanliness of cities. Some cities have created WhatsApp helplines where residents can report people illegally dumping garbage. This public awareness campaign, coupled with a lack of movement by local and national authorities, created an opportunity for entrepreneurs, who see recycling as a commodity, not a nuisance.
India’s waste problems are not new; however, using technology to connect consumers and entrepreneurs through smartphones to dispose trash is revolutionary. Toter, a smartphone app in Hyderabad, was among the first Indian attempts to develop an Uber-style model for collecting recyclables. Traditionally, trash and collection of recyclables has been handled in an informal manner. Scrap collectors, known as raddiwalas, visit homes collecting glass bottles, plastic containers, and old newspapers.
Toter connects these scrap collectors to residents using an app. Residents with trash worth money can arrange a pickup using the Toter app. They are paid on the spot for everything from recyclables to e-waste. These 21st-century raddiwalas are paid above market rates by Toter to collect waste and deliver the materials to recycling centres.
How Toter Works
“If you look at the recycling sector today, the vacuum is not in the recycling sector. The vacuum is in the collection arm, which is missing innovation,” Roshan Miranda, co-founder and director of Toter, said. “Since we replace multiple middlemen in the informal trash economy, it gives us little more bandwidth in terms of margins. That’s why we can give better rates [than] scrap dealers, and our scale helps us leverage this when it comes to recyclers.”
Startups doing government’s work
Toter is a product of Waste Ventures, a six-year-old company based in Hyderabad. The idea for the app emerged after engineers at Waste Ventures experimented with several waste management solutions for the local government. Frustrated by the bureaucracy of dealing with municipalities, the company decided to create its own waste management technology. According to Miranda, 50% of waste generation in Hyderabad comes from private homes and small and medium-sized enterprises. Instead of focusing on larger businesses, Toter focused its resources on an untapped market.
The disposal of e-waste has played an important role in the Uberisation of India’s trash economy, since recycling generates money when items are returned to recycling centres. Used electronic devices accounted for 1.7m tonnes of e-waste in 2015. Startups such as BinBag, Eco Reco, Attero Recycling, Karma Recycling, and Namo E-Waste offer services ranging from extracting pure metals from devices to refurbishing and reselling old electronic devices. Their services extend to data protection and lamp recycling.
Extra Carbon, a company based in Gurgaon, has entered the market with a savvy campaign rebranding the local scrap dealer as a ‘Green Super Hero’. Consumers selling recycling to Extra Carbon are paid digitally or with e-shopping credits redeemable on the company’s e-commerce platform. According to Extra Carbon CEO Gaurav Joshi, there has been a shift in consumer behaviour as more people become interested in recycling as a way to make money.
Formalising the informal economy
The challenge for Indian trash startups is not necessarily about awareness; rather, it involves training scrap collectors to use technology and engage directly with customers. As symbols of the informal economy, trash collectors are joining the formal economy through the Uberisation of recycling. Solitary collectors looking for recyclables are now the public face of these startups and deal with customers on a daily basis. “This sector is not backed by any talent school, so people are not ready to work in this sector unless you throw money, or unless and until they are really passionate about it,” Joshi said.
For startups willing to grapple with the learning curve involved in India’s waste management industry, there is money to be made. As Miranda observed, “If you went to any village 10 years ago, there used to be hardly any plastic there. Today, you find plastic in every village you go to. With more urbanisation, you find more waste that needs to be recycled.”
Neha Raheja Thakker is a Mumbai-based writer and filmmaker, whose work engages with social hierarchies and the urban landscape.