Plastic waste has become an extremely hot-button issue of late, and for good reason: We're drowning in it.
According to Greenpeace, more than 90% of plastic produced is never recycled. Since most plastics don't biodegrade, that means they're all still with us, clogging our landfills or breaking down in our waterways and entering the foodchain as microplastics. It's a daunting problem, which is why brands from Adidas to Lush Cosmetics have been trying to address it through recycled plastic initiatives in recent years.
With all the buzz around plastics, you'd think that a group of people who spend their lives managing and recycling plastic waste would be some of the most celebrated on the planet. Yet informal waste pickers, who make a living sorting through trash by hand to ensure no plastic bottles that could have a second life end up in landfills, are often ostracized in their own communities and have a hard time attracting investment to help them build efficiency-increasing infrastructure.
"People don't always look at waste pickers as legitimate workers," explains Nalini Shekar, a social activist based in Bangalore, India. Shekar founded Hasiru Dala, an organization that helps local waste pickers unionize, get connected to social services and advocate for their rights. "In 2010 there were about 35,000 waste pickers in [Bangalore], but the city was not responding to their needs."
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While Shekar's work with waste pickers has long made sense on a local level — after all, Bangalore's waste pickers that Shekar calls "robust entrepreneurs" both help supplement governmental programs around recycling and contribute to the city's economic growth — it's recently found a more global application. Since last year, the organization has been partnering with international beauty brand The Body Shop and the world's first fair trade-certified plastics recycler Plastics for Change to create a supply chain that supports the crucial work done by informal waste pickers in Bangalore.
The result, announced on Thursday, is a new initiative from The Body Shop that will introduce recycled plastic into the packaging of three million hair-care bottles by the end of 2019, with a larger goal to expand across all the brand's PET plastic packaging over the next three years. The initiative is part of The Body Shop's Community Trade program, which was founded as a way to use "trade not aid" to support under-resourced communities across the globe.
"This plastic's a little like one of our natural ingredients, really, because it's hand-picked and hand-sorted," explains Global Community Trade Manager for The Body Shop Lee Mann. "So we can actually ensure that we've got the cleanest material — we created the world's clearest [recycled] bottle."
The plastic that ultimately ends up in The Body Shop's new packaging starts as plastic bottles thrown away by residents of Bangalore. Waste pickers then sort out the recyclable plastic from other waste and send it to aggregation centers where it's compacted into bales. The bales are then shipped to a processing facility in the Netherlands that has the capability to produce food-grade recycled packaging, which isn't yet possible to create in India.
The purity of the final product is a boon for the brand, but an even more exciting element is the degree of traceability possible in the supply chain through partnership with Plastics for Change. Founded by Andrew Almack, the company has won awards from MIT for its innovative use of tech in the recycling process. An app (and related services accessible to folks who may not be literate or own a smartphone) created by Plastics for Change helps track waste pickers so those at the end of the supply chain know where their raw material is coming from. It also helps waste pickers get connected to centers that will buy their plastic for fair and stable prices in addition to notifying them about community services in their area.
From Almack's perspective, The Body Shop's involvement is important beyond providing a buyer for the plastic.
"Most brands just want to purchase the finished good," Almack says. "They might care about tier two [of their supply chain], but they definitely don't care about tier three or four... We're going all the way down to tier seven. The commitment from the Body Shop to get that deep and that entrenched in the supply chain is really special. Leveraging their purchasing power to get the whole supply chain together was crucial."
Hasiru Dala's Shekar would add that The Body Shop's agreement to buy at fixed prices helps stabilize incomes for waste pickers, who are otherwise subject to a volatile market that fluctuates with the price of oil (plastic is, after all, a petroleum-based product). When combined with Hasiru Dala's efforts to secure occupational ID cards for waste pickers — something many have never had before, which can help them access social services like healthcare — the overall impact is a decidedly positive one on workers' lives.
And the waste pickers themselves make very clear that what they want more than anything is fair prices and respect for the work they're already doing. Although some of the dozen or so interviewed for this piece mentioned wanting to work so their kids could have "better lives," many others asserted that waste-picking is itself a rewarding job they're proud to have.
"I enjoy doing this. I'm the owner of my own time. If you go as a laborer to a factory, if you come late, they will make you wait outside," explains Anamma, a former waste picker who now runs a dry waste collection center in Bangalore using training she received from Hasiru Dala. Listening to her talk about her work is like hearing from an enthusiastic entrepreneur anywhere in the world: energizing and inspiring. It's easy to forget that she's working in a field that has historically been reserved for the "untouchable" caste in her city.
"I'm very proud of the work that I do," she says. "Even if someone offered me more money to do something else, I wouldn't go, because I really like this work."
The Body Shop isn't going to stop looking for ways to further reduce the environmental impact of its packaging, but it is committed to staying invested in these waste-picking communities long-term. Seeing the impact even a little bit of investment can make in waste pickers' lives is motivating to folks like Mann. And while the ecological factor is important, he, Shekar and Almack all agree that seeing waste pickers get the support they've deserved all along is worth it in and of itself.
"We're changing the narrative of waste pickers in Bangalore," says Shekar. "We say they're silent environmentalists."
Disclosure: The Body Shop paid for my travel and accommodations to tour the recycling facilities.