The Center for Data Innovation spoke with Siddharth Hande, founder of Kabadiwalla Connect, a startup based in Chennai, India that develops data-driven waste management solutions for the developing world. Hande spoke about mapping the activities of thousands of waste-pickers in Chennai and how policymakers can use this data to make more cost-effective, lower-carbon waste management decisions.
Hodan Omaar: What is the problem with waste management that Kabadiwalla Connect is trying to solve in India?
Siddharth Hande: India struggles to deal with the huge volumes of waste that its increasingly urban population generates. Urban India generates around 70 million tons of waste each year and the formal, municipal waste system sends over 90 percent of that to poorly managed landfills. It’s a huge shame because around half of all the waste produced is organic waste that could be composted and a quarter of it is recyclable. Not only are existing waste management systems in India inefficient, they are costly. Municipalities spend between 20 and 50 percent of their budgets on waste collection. And these problems aren’t unique to India, there are similar issues with waste management across South East Asia, Africa, and Latin America.
The mission of Kabadiwalla Connect is to help address these issues by leveraging a “shadow” waste supply chain that exists in the Global South. In many developing countries, a significant amount of waste is recovered by informal recyclers that pick waste materials from landfills or dustbins to make money. They sell the waste they collect to local scrap shops—known colloquially as kabadiwallas in India—that collect, store, and minimally process waste materials. Kabadiwallas are material agnostic and buy a range of materials including plastic, paper, glass, and metal that they deem sellable to large scrap shops that act as material recovery facilities. In turn, large aggregators pre-process the materials they collect and sell in bulk to formal and informal processing facilities that turn recyclable materials into usable secondary materials the manufacturing industry can use.
This informal ecosystem is responsible for recovering 20 percent of recyclable post-consumer waste in India but remains invisible. There is little quantitative data on the operations and infrastructure that the estimated 1.5 million waste-pickers and related aggregators across the country employ, which not only makes it difficult for municipalities and companies who could become more efficient and cost-effective by working with these stakeholders, it keeps the individuals who assume most of the health and safety risks of working with recyclable waste out of view.
Our team has been working to map, trace, and track this informal supply chain to create an interactive data dashboard for stakeholders to explore and understand the informal waste management.
Omaar: How did you go about collecting data to map out the informal supply chain in India?
Hande: Our work started in 2015 taking a street-by-street census style survey of scrap shops and processors in all 200 wards of Chennai, the sixth largest city in India, through funding from the Global Partnership on Sustainable Development Data (GPSDD) and World Economic Forum. We gave our surveyors specific regions to cover and had them use mobile-based data collection tools to survey every single street in their designated regions. We collected a host of different data including demographics, access to finance, business activities, and material flow, that we then analyzed and visualized on a data dashboard.
Omaar: How can policymakers use this data to support decision-making?
Hande: Data on the informal sector is key to creating strategies that integrate informal actors— that are already incentivized to recycle—into the formal waste management system. Policymakers can use our data to deliver cost-effective and low-carbon waste management solutions that support their growing populations.
Consider policymakers deciding waste management strategies for ward 100 in Chennai. This ward has 185 streets and 45,000 people. We found that there were around 180 waste-pickers and 16 small scrap shops in this ward that help collect around 720 tons of recyclable waste every year, making around $170,000 of revenue. Without data on the informal sector, policymakers have to rely on centralized municipal processes and resources. They might decide that they need to contract municipal staff to collect and transport waste material for ward 100 and even build new facilities for processing. But with informal sector data, they can take a hyperlocal approach, hiring waste-pickers in their own municipality and leveraging the storage space and facilities of the existing local kabadiwallas. Because kabadiwallas typically only serve a 5-mile radius, the financial and time-related costs of transportation are much lower. And better still, strengthening the informal supply chain can help build site and labor compliance into kabadiwallas and promote dignified collection services where collectors go directly to households rather than open dumps and landfills.
Omaar: Besides data mapping, what other tech-based solutions are you working on?
Hande: We’re piloting a number of different ICT and IoT-based solutions. For one, we’re using IoT-enabled smart bins in 1,500 homes in Chennai. The bins track the amount and quality of segregated waste, which enables waste-pickers with our app to plan their collection schedules. We’re also using waste bags with QR codes that allow us to track where waste originates from, which is really important for companies that need to show the government that they are recycling. In Indonesia and India, we are also using point-of-sale devices that register waste-pickers as suppliers and create a receipt of signatures authorizing the sale of materials, promoting traceability.
We’re working toward creating raw material procurement guarantees for large processors too. The goal is to build contracts such that processors can reliably procure a set amount of material from the informal sector every month.
Omaar: What’s next?
Hande: My biggest target in the next five years is to map 100 cities. Ideally, all the data would be available on an open-source application that would contain granular data and be regularly updated. Ultimately, I believe the future of resource recovery and recycling in the developing world has to involve the informal sector. As we work toward broader goals for a circular economy, I want to help ensure the lives of all stakeholders in the informal economy improve.