Chennai generates over 5,000 metric tonnes of waste in a single day. Most of this waste ends up in its two primary landfills in Kodungaiyur and Perungudi — both of which are full to their brim and cannot be used past this year. The Corporation’s waste collection process is hardly comprehensive, and most of what they miss ends up lining the city’s streets and clogging its waterways.
“The landfill mindset is ridiculous. We need to start thinking about resource recovery,” says Siddharth Hande, founder of Kabadiwalla Connect, a startup that aims to leverage informal waste ecosystems in order to create an alternate solution to the city’s waste management problem. “There is an amazing community of people already incentivised to deal with a lot of your waste. We’re just trying to use technology to do a more seamless connection so that people send recyclable waste to these kabadiwallas instead of the landfill.”
The idea of tapping into the existing network of informal recyclers flows from Hande’s belief that the solutions to the developing world’s ecological problems must be customised to the local environment. “When we cut copy paste interventions from developed cities with very different contexts, it leads to a lot of issues,” he adds.
Kabadiwalla Connect runs an information service through their website that connects users to recyclers in their locality. It has already mapped 560 outlets across three zones that collectively process “over 3,500 tonnes of waste every month, not to mention close to a million bottles”. The company, which is currently funded by a grant from the World Economic Forum, intends to make money through “upcycling”– using discarded materials to build new products.
The information service, which began as a simple map, has evolved through user feedback. It now includes filters that indicate the kind of waste accepted by each kabadiwalla and contact details for doorstep pickup. But that’s only the tip of the iceberg as far as Kabadiwalla Connect is concerned. The company is now in the process of recruiting individual kabadiwallas to start a buying club for waste. The idea is to aggregate the waste collected by a number of kabadiwallas in order to cut out the middle men and deal directly with the large recycling plants.
“The price of waste is dependant upon how much storage space there is. For example, a kabadiwalla will sell 1 kg of PET at about ₹14, and by the time the warehouse sells to a processor, they’re selling it for about ₹22. The only difference is that the warehouse is selling about 2.5 tonnes while the kabbadiwalla is selling about 100kg. By giving them an app and allowing them to report when they have that 100kg, we connect enough kabbadiwallas to gain volume and earn the highest price,” explains Hande
According to him, one of the fundamental obstacles facing recycling is the mindset that waste has no value. He believes that we need to start thinking of waste as a resource so that we can do useful things with it. The company pegs the average earnings of a kabadiwalla between ₹10,000-₹20,000. And at least a quarter of them reportedly make more than ₹50,000 a month.
However, making money off recyclables is a lot more complicated than merely plugging kabadiwallas into the Internet. The data suggests that about 70 per cent of kabadiwallas work out of rented properties. This means that as localities gentrify and rents go up, they are first relegated to the peripheries and eventually pushed out. And the informal sector being what it is, safety standards are non-existent. Protective equipment is unheard of and injuries are commonplace. This is where the company believes it can enhance the existing informal structures, by expanding the reach of the network and using modern techniques and standards to solve some of their problems.
“The kabadiwallas will never be ours. But we could be an Ola or an Uber for waste. Where people align with our platform because they’re making money and we make money off that,” Hande adds.