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(Blog 2 of 5) 5 Gyres in India: Lessons from the Waste Pickers

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Minar Mask

We’re adding another concept to our traveling exhibit “Plastisphere”.  The concept is quite simple. RECOVERY MATTERS MORE THAN RECYCLING. The people that pick up plastic as their livelihood, the ones we call “Waste Pickers”, are the experts to tell us which products pass or fail the recovery test. Those that fail must either be redesigned or phased out.  The waste pickers know this best,  and the plastic industry could learn from them.


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When I first met Minar he had giant sacks of plastic tied to his bicycle.  I followed him into the Vivekanda Camp, a slum in Delhi, where 3000 people live on 5 acres of land.  He’s a trash picker.  India can boast a recovery rate of over 50% for all plastic produced in the country, and it’s thanks to the waste pickers. But his contribution is much more than that.  I had a chance to shadow him.  I borrowed a bicycle and met Minar in front of his camp a few days ago.

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We rode for 4 hours, stopping at trash piles where the neighborhood dumps trash, knowing that the trash pickers will come and take most of it away. Minar picked up a chunk of styrofoam.  “No good,” he said.  There are no buyers in Delhi that will buy styrofoam.  We rode on and suddenly he stopped. There was a plastic bottle under a bush that he spotted.  Later an aluminum can.  Then he stopped again, bend down and picked up a ketchup pack.

“This is no good.”  Sauce packs are too small, too dirty, and not recoverable. Minar picked up the plastic film that covers a cup of water, he tore off the plastic label on a water bottle, and picked up a small candy wrapper.  “These are no good.”  Although all of these products are technically recycleable, they are not “recoverable”. These designs fail the recovery test.


Plastic producers, manufacturers and some NGO’s they support, are working hard to put the responsibility for the plastic pollution on the shoulders of the consumer, and blame you for not recycling and causing litter.  It’s a rehashing of the 1970′s Crying Indian ads by Keep America Beautiful, funded by CocaCola and the plastic industry, which repeatedly said, “People cause pollution.”.  What Minar shows us is that recycling is a fallacy for thousands of products that are not designed for it. That leave’s two choices, either redesign the product or phase it out.  IF THEY CAN’T BE RECOVERED, THEN RECYCLING DOESN’T MATTER.

Minar let me cast his face and hand to be included in our traveling exhibit “Plastisphere”. His cast will tell the story of recycling and recovery, and at the same time it will honor him for his significant contribution to solving the problem.  He is not the waste picker, but more a sanitation engineer, that can tell us the difference between plastic that can be recovered for recycling, and those products destined for the sea.

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One Response

  1. Laura Abbady says:

    It would be a fascinating project to design substitutions for the “unrecoverable” items this (and now, most) societies have come to expect and use, daily – ie – single serve plastic dressing packets. My first thought is – at least make the packets out of a substance that can meld ( meld, fuse, or interlock) together, maybe into enough material to reuse and create something with!

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