Clara Kollm

Clara Kollm (Chintan Environmental Action and Research Group - Chintan): During her undergraduate study, Clara worked abroad in Thailand and travelled widely in Southeast Asia. At the time of her fellowship, she was pursuing a B.S. in Environmental Science and Policy from the University of Maryland, College Park. While at UMD, Clara also completed a minor in International Development and Conflict Management and a certificate in Public Leadership. She also interned in Washington D.C. with a non-profit environmental law firm, Earthjustice. After her fellowship Clara wrote: "Being in India and learning about an international NGO is invaluable to me and my education. This experience ...has given me a greater appreciation for the human condition. This was my first experience with that level of poverty, and I predict that this experience will continue to influence my life choices.”

Cliche to Cash

23 Jun

Delhi personifies the cliche, “one man’s trash is another man’s treasure.” In fact, for many in Delhi, trash transcends the frivolity of most treasures and provides the means to harness basic needs such as food, water, and shelter. Who are the waste-pickers? Simply put, they are the individuals, families, and communities who thrive off of materials that others deem useless.

The process is fairly straight forward. First, the average person discards materials, maybe into a trash can (although public trash cans are extremely rare), onto the street, or into a household dumpster. Waste-pickers come around and collect the garbage (sometimes off the street, other times from knocking on doors) and haul it away in a cart that is pulled via a bicycle, and bring it to a designated area to be sorted. Yes, that is a Dominos box.

Cycle Rickshaw for Trash Collection. This particular Rickshaw was provided by Chintan as part of the door-to-door waste collection initiative.

This is a designated area for sorting on the side of a busy road.

Once the waste is sorted into plastics, papers, and compostables, the waste-picker sells the materials. An extremely successful waste-picker can earn around 150 rupees a day  freelancing (about $3 USD).

This system not only provides a livelihood for millions of people, but it also ensures that materials are recycled. In this respect, Delhi has a more advanced waste management system (albeit imperfect) then the United States, because only materials with no remaining use end up in landfills. Consider the copious amounts of recyclables/compostables that end up in U.S. landfills because of general carelessness; these materials contribute to our carbon footprint instead of being put to a beneficial use.

This is an extremely oversimplified version of what goes on around Delhi, as there are complex procedures for the sorting and selling of waste, especially E-Waste (electronic waste); however this description captures the essence of what occurs all around this major metropolis. Remember, this entire process is done without any help, oversight, or input from the government – which means that waste-pickers comprise the informal sector and receive very few legal rights. This also means that the government does not provide municipal waste pickup for households or businesses … personally, I would not want to imagine what would happen to the (already littered) Delhi streets and rivers if the informal sector failed to absorb the waste.

Where does Chintan fit in?

Chintan has five major initiatives to help support the waste-pickers and their essential function. It is important to note that although this profession may not be desirable to many of us, Chintan does not seek to change the profession itself, but rather improve the inadequate  working conditions; for example, Chintan seeks to create more substantial sorting areas, specific rules for the disposal of hazardous waste, and to provide sanitary equipment for workers at affordable prices. The five initiatives are:

1) Voice for Waste: This program creates focus groups of waste-pickers that discuss issues, policy decisions, and potential campaigns to improve their profession.

2) Low Carbon Future: This program works with bulk waste producers such as malls, offices, and businesses to “green” their systems. In addition to requiring a reduction of waste creation, Chintan helps to manage the waste that is created by contracting it to specific waste-pickers. This ensures that it is thoroughly sorted and also provides a stable income for some of the waste-pickers.

3) No Child in Trash: This initiative helps educate the children of waste-pickers in informal schools that Chintan builds (with the help of sponsors) so that the children can eventually join the formal education system, or at least have enough of an education to make substantial choices about their future.

Informal school at the Gaziapur landfill.

4) Scavengers to Managers: This program communicates with neighborhoods and arranges for waste-pickers to come for door-to door collection. This means that a waste-picker will have a set number of houses in a set area, as opposed to scavenging whatever possible. Chintan serves as the middle man between the communities and the waste-pickers because each household pays a monthly rate to Chintan which in turn pays the waste-pickers a salary.

5) Knowledge Power: This initiative focuses on researching problems that waste-pickers face in order to best inform which policy platforms Chintan supports.

I hope this overview is helpful, I myself am still learning about all the complexities surrounding this issue so please let me know if I can answer any questions!

Hindi word of the day: acha = good

Posted By Clara Kollm

Posted Jun 23rd, 2011


  • Jenna

    June 23, 2011


    Somehow I’m not surprised you noticed the Domino’s box…

    This is so great/so interesting. I can’t wait to hear more about it and to see more photos!

  • Karie

    June 23, 2011


    “Acha” blog post, Clara! I do have a question, which is probably very common for Chintan (but perhaps also very frustrating!). Are many of these wastepickers in the position that they’re in because of caste? And is their situation likely to change so long as society is still structured, albeit informally, in a caste system?

  • Kristina

    June 23, 2011


    Wow- the story of a waste picker is really interesting! Its amazing to think that all this occurs in an informal process. Who ends up buying the materials? I like that Chintan is thinking of ways to protect the waste picker, especially in terms of hazardous waste, which can have long term health effects on these individuals (especially children).
    I also love the Dominos box siting.

  • Sarah

    June 27, 2011


    I just got around to reading this and think it’s fascinating, Clara! I saw some of your pictures on Facebook, was a little disturbed by the children walking around in piles of trash, but now I understand just a little bit better. It’s really interesting that a job most people might find pretty gross actually helps Delhi’s sustainability. Still not sure how I feel about babies in trash, but it’s so cool that you’re doing this kind of work 🙂

  • Pete

    June 27, 2011


    Really eye opening. Keep up the good work. Couldn’t be prouder.

  • Gary Kollm

    June 29, 2011


    Just imagine if the wastepickers stopped their process. What a mess Delhi would be in! These people are obviously not valued for what they are doing, and the government is getting a free ride on the entire situation. The wastepickers are merely trying to survive, a good example of what one will do to survive. Interesting Clara, keep it up. U Gary

  • Clara Kollm

    June 30, 2011


    Karie – I honestly do not know enough about the caste system to be able to answer that question intelligently. I’ve been trying to gather more information, and it just brings up more questions! I’ll try to have something for you soon. I can say that many of the waste-pickers are immigrants who come into the country illegally. This means that they are innately looked down upon for their profession and their immigration status. This also means they are forced to live in illegal housing settlements because they can’t obtain the legal documents. In some respects, illegal immigrants are at the very bottom of the caste system because they aren’t included at all. I hope this helps!

    Erica – This question is tricky and the answer depends on who you ask. Ultimately the informal sector will most likely have to become formalized, however the extent to which the formalization occurs is a point of contention. Consider Chintan’s door-to-door collection initiative. This essentially transforms workers from individuals who work for themselves to wage laborers, which enables the labor to be part of the formal economy, but the service the waste-pickers provide is still excluded from the formal sector because the value of recyclables is not counted.

    Pegah – sanitation equipment is interesting because the waste-pickers themselves won’t use it! Chintan has previously provided gloves and masks and they were discarded, so now Chintan focuses on health campaigns in the schools, like teaching the children how to boil water and to wash hands after sorting the garbage. They also don’t wear helmets on their motor bikes despite the insane driving conditions.

  • mary kollm

    July 8, 2011


    Claara I am sure enjoying your Blog You have a lot to write about. I think we have a lot to be thankful for in our country. love you Grandma Kollm.

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