Ted Mathys

Ted Mathys (Chintan Environmental Research and Action Group): Ted earned a Bachelor’s degree in international relations from Carleton College. His research focused on the social dynamics of achieving environmental sustainability in the context of globalization. At the time of his fellowship, Ted was pursuing a degree in international environmental policy at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. After his fellowship, Ted wrote: “I learned to undertake rigorous research in difficult conditions. More than this, I was challenged to think about poverty and (the) environment in much more complex ways.”

Wastepickers and Climate Change in 20 Steps

03 Jul

I’ve been asked by several readers about the connection between wastepickers and climate change, since that’s the focus of the policy research I’m undertaking for Chintan this summer. In an effort to respond to these questions with pith and punch, below is a quick primer on municipal solid waste, greenhouse gases, and informal recycling in 20 steps. This is by no means comprehensive; I’ve resisted plunging into the hard science or hairy dynamics of carbon market mechanisms, but would be glad to go down that road in the comments section or email for those who are interested.  Here goes:

1.    For most of last week it topped out at over 110 degrees Fahrenheit in New Delhi.

2.    Consequently, I felt like this poor fool:



3.    Yet this has nothing to do with climate and everything to do weather.

4.    Weather is the daily meteorological and environmental conditions in an area, such as heat or cold, wetness or dryness, calm or storm, clearness or cloudiness.

5.    Climate, on the other hand, is the moving average of weather patterns and events over a period of time (the standard length of time for our purposes is 30 years).

6.    Unfortunately, the climate is changing – our averages are climbing.

7.    This is a bummer for many Americans, because we tend to like Florida, intact glaciers, and charismatic mega-fauna like polar bears. But we hate heat waves, wildfires, and suffocating fish.

8.    It’s even more devastating for many Indians, because changing rainfall and monsoon patterns will affect scarce water resources, threaten biodiversity, and hit the rural poor in the agricultural sector particularly hard.

9.    Global climate change is partly driven by anthropogenic (human-induced) emissions of several greenhouse gases, such as carbon dioxide (CO2) and methane (CH4).

10.    According to the World Resources Institute, the waste sector accounts for about 3.8% of total global greenhouse gas emissions. In India this figure is nearly double – 6.7%.

11.    Emissions from the waste sector take two primary forms: 1) carbon dioxide is released from the production, distribution, and use of consumer goods that are ultimately thrown away; and 2) methane, which is roughly 72 times more potent than CO2 over a 20 year time horizon, is emitted from landfills into the atmosphere during the anaerobic decomposition of a city’s garbage.

Informal recyclers working at the peak of the Okhla dump

Informal recyclers working at the peak of the Okhla dump

12.    Think of it like this – every item in the heap of trash at your landfill represents the end point of a very long process that includes extraction and processing of raw materials; manufacture of products; transportation of materials and products to markets; use by consumers; and eventually waste management.

13.    Virtually every step along this “life cycle” impacts greenhouse gas emissions. In the early and middle stages, CO2 is released from power plants burning coal to supply electricity to factories, from trucks and ships running on petroleum, and so on. If a product is incinerated at the end of its life, CO2 is released along with other toxic emissions called dioxins and furans.  Alternatively, if it is landfilled, methane seeps out for several decades. Either way the atmosphere loses.

14.    Thus, reducing, re-using, recycling, and composting the various streams of municipal solid waste can mitigate both carbon dioxide and methane emissions. It takes much less energy to use recycled inputs in manufacturing than it takes to extract, process, and transport virgin materials. And if we “close the loop” of production with recycling, composting, and waste prevention, these products never need to be burned or buried.

In this diagram, MTCE stands for Metric Tons of Carbon Equivalent.  In scenario 1 up top, disposing of 100 tons of office paper in the standard fashion results in emissions of 62 MTCE. In scenario 2, recycling some of this paper results in a REDUCTION of 65 MTCE. Source: US Environmental Protection Agency

In this diagram, MTCE stands for Metric Tons of Carbon Equivalent. In scenario 1 up top, disposing of 100 tons of office paper in the standard fashion results in emissions of 62 MTCE. In scenario 2, recycling some of this paper results in a REDUCTION of 65 MTCE. Source: US Environmental Protection Agency

15.    For example, a groundbreaking new study by the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, Eco-Cycle, and G.A.I.A. found that if Americans could simply reduce waste generation 1% each year and divert 90% of our discards from landfills and incinerators by the year 2030, the greenhouse gas savings would amount to closing 1/5 of all coal-fired power plants in the country.

16.    Delhi’s waste problem is gargantuan. This is partly due to the booming population in India and the rapid rate of urbanization.

17.    But it’s also due to mismanagement. For a megalopolis of 15 million people, Delhi has just three open dumps, all of which are unsanitary and overflowing. The city generates over 6,000 metric tons of waste per day. Yet only half of the city’s tipper trucks run at any one time, there is a dearth of garbage bins in public places, and residents very rarely segregate their waste.  Much of it, frankly, is just thrown on the street.

18.    The city has come up with all kinds of quick-fix solutions, from burning the waste to making it into pellets to fuel power plants, to compressing it into bales, wrapping it in plastic, and stacking it a half mile in the air. But the best climate and waste models out there suggest that good old recycling and composting, while not as sexy as these technologies, offer greater reductions in greenhouse gas emissions than landfillng and incineration, and often have superior net energy balances as well.

19.    Here’s where the wastepickers come in.  They are India’s most efficient recyclers. In Delhi, informal wastepickers, junk dealers, and small recyclers number around 100,000 people.  The average wastepicker recycles 60 kilograms per day.  This saves the municipality a ton of money and reduces emissions.

Okhla wastepicker families taking a break

Okhla wastepicker families taking a break

20.    In the final analysis, it is clear that wastepickers are owed a climate debt.  The thrust of my research this summer is to calculate this climate debt and help Chintan craft a campaign to connect these climate entrepreneurs to resources that will facilitate their environmentally friendly livelihoods.

Recycling plastic bottles at Ghazipur

Recycling plastic bottles at Ghazipur

Posted By Ted Mathys

Posted Jul 3rd, 2009


  • Jess

    July 8, 2009


    Hey Ted,

    This made me think of you…http://www.sophiegerrard.com/SophieHomeIndex.html. It’s photos of electronic (tech) waste in India. Have you come across this at all?

    Un saludo from Lima,


  • Ted Mathys

    July 8, 2009


    Hi, Jess

    Thanks so much for this. The photos are quite powerful, and yes, this issue is very much on my mind. I’ve done some work on it in the West African context, and was very impressed with the advocacy the Chintan has done around e-waste here.

    In fact, they collaborated with the Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition on a film about the problems of e-waste export and disassembly in India. A snippet of that film is here:


    The issue is really one of extended producer responsibility. Corporations who manufacture these products need to 1) make them clean and free of toxics, and 2) take responsibility for them at end of life. At the same time, simply outlawing informal recycling of e-waste would devastate the livelihoods of some of the poorest in urban India.

    Hope you are doing well in Peru. Keep up the great work!


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