Talking Trash--in Chennai

Understanding waste in one of India's largest cities.

Out with “Scavenger” in with “Trash Saver”

Today, the sun was unyielding. I made several attempts to venture outside to observe the ongoings of waste collection, but it was around 6 pm, once the sun was finally abdicating its throne for the day, that I happened upon my best conversation of the day.

As the last of the sun was disappearing behind a new apartment building being constructed down the road, I met Ram. Ram is thin, with disheveled hair and quick-moving eyes. Dressed in a plaid lungi and a black button down shirt, Ram called himself, when I asked what he was doing by the dumpster, a trash saver, a much more appropriate term I think than those we’ve come to adopt, like “scavengers” or “rag pickers.” Ram had three neatly divided canvas bags in his cart—plastic products, paper products, and still usable goods. He had only covered three dumpsters but the cart was half full. Among the items he’d collected were plastic water and juice bottles, cloth towels, soda cans, and a backpack with a broken zipper. “I can’t believe they threw this out…” he mused, gesturing for me to look at the handsome black backpack. “I have a friend, he can fix the zipper and then I can sell it, or give it to someone.” Indeed, Ram and fellow informal waste workers exemplify the idea of reinstating value to items that are cast off as having no value. It is through their labour in and around the trash bin that such individuals are indeed asserting their power, by reconstituting the process and product of waste as a source of personal sustenance.

When I asked how hard it is to find what he is looking for, he paused. “I’m not ever looking for something. Each day is different. I know what I can sell, what I can keep, but I don’t look for them specifically.” As we can imagine, the work of picking through garbage to find recyclables or usable goods is laborious and not particularly appealing. Flies were buzzing around, and a line of ants were marching down the edges of the dumpster. But for Ram, the safety and hygiene factor is something he has grown to live with. “It doesn’t bother me much anymore. I’ve never gotten sick because of this. But it’s hard for me when it’s all thrown together because good things get ruined. They throw it all together and a perfectly good piece of cardboard”—he pointed to the remains of a cardboard box covered in smashed vegetable skins—“I can’t use. And,” he continued, after pausing to examine the cardboard one more time, “some of these trash men take the paper and plastic and sell it for themselves. I’ve seen them. So, I don’t get everything I could get.”

Ram starts down on Ranga Road near the slum area and makes his way down each dumpster, but goes throughout Mylapore and beyond—wherever he can for however long he can. Because neighbourhoods are so mixed these days—both in terms of the socioeconomic make-up and the fusion of commercial and residential establishments—one cannot be too sure about what is being found in what dumpster.

It should be noted that “rag pickers” are a part of the informal waste sector but not the total sum of it. The informal waste sector also includes the people that come door-to-door for waste paper and plastics and sell to local paper marts, which then sell to the industry. Still, both are part of the informal waste economy and are integral to making a dent in diverting some fraction of the 4,500 tons of waste generated in Chennai per day.