Paul Colombini

Paul Colombini (Chintan Environmental Research and Action Group): Paul graduated from the University of Maryland at College Park with a BA in art history and a BS in international business. He also taught English abroad for several years, first in Japan and then in China. At the time of his fellowship, Paul was studying for a Masters in international development at The American University in Washington, DC. After his fellowship, Paul wrote: "This experience helped me understand India and Indian society and also gave me a greater appreciation of the enormous difficulties of development and grassroots efforts in particular."

Wastepickers at Work

17 Jul

In his thought-provoking book “Whose Reality Counts? Putting the First Last,” Robert Chambers tells us that poor people’s realities are “diverse, dynamic and unpredictable” and that their responses to those realities must necessarily be clever and complex. The wastepickers of Delhi are no exception, and like the poor farmers that Chambers talks about, they have devised many ways to deal with their complicated situations, and many alternative methods for getting an income. Indeed, there is a wide variety of ways by which wastepickers collect trash, and perhaps the only thing which ties the work of all wastepickers together is that they begin early in the morning and don’t stop working until late at night.

Some wastepickers use bicycles or tricycles to pick up trash; in this way they are able to carry 40-60 KG of garbage in one trip rather than the 20-40 KG max that can be carried by foot. This kabari has two large bins on his tricycle: one for recyclable waste and one for compostable waste.

Door-to-door kabaris have been able to work out relationships with specific neighborhoods, either through Chintan or independently, whereby they collect waste directly from household owners. This system garuntees them a better and more steady income.

One of Chintan’s goals is to help formalize the work of wastepickers so that they can compete with private waste companies directly. Towards this end, Chintan has arranged contracts with several 5-star hotels in Delhi, including the Taj, for wastepickers to sort and pickup their recyclable garbage. Here wastepickers collect garbage from the dumpster behind the Taj hotel.

Another Chintan project called “Metamorphosis” has given the opportunity to several wastepicker women to use their traditional crafts skills in a new way. In the basement of the Maurya Sheraton Hotel, the women work on looms to weave shreds of plastic bags into colorful handbags and wall decorations. These beautiful fashion items are then sold to tourists. Mackenzie Berg wrote an interesting BLOG about this:

Chintan also provides a sorting-area at a small junk dealer near Bhopura, a suburb of Delhi. Here wastepickers bring bags of garbage for seperating the recyclables. Sorting represents one of the most time and space intensive aspects of wastepicking.

A wastepicker holds plastic bottle necks which have been collected at a small junk dealer in Bhopura, near Delhi. At the end of the day, the benefits of wastepickers’ work are twofold, providing both an income to deperately poor people and an efficient means for recycling.

Posted By Paul Colombini

Posted Jul 17th, 2008


  • Joanna Kimball

    July 25, 2008


    I like your blog; what a great experience! (Except for the stomach bugs, that is). My summer in an air-conditioned DC office just doesn’t compare.

  • Mohana

    February 2, 2012


    Hi Paul,

    Interesting information. Nice pictures too. We recently spoke to five municipal corporations on waste management. I will share the article once it is published. Can I get permission to use a picture or two from your blog for the article giving due credits?
    Do reply

    Warm regards

    Mohana M.
    Managing Editor
    Clean India Journal

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