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Develop a smart phone app that helps people segregate, compost, find their closest kabadiwalla and sign-up for local waste management events



The proposal aims to map all the informal primary scrap-aggregators (known locally as kabadiwallas) in Indian cities and build a smart phone application that communities can use to manage their waste responsibly at home.

We have built a web version of this information service, incorporating data that we collected in Chennai in 2015. We are working on a second iteration of this service, which will be a smart phone app. The web service can be accessed here. [username:kabadiwallaconnect | password:temp123].

The app will employ a conversational interface that will provide people simple information on how to segregate and compost at home, make it easy to connect to their closest kabadiwalla, as well as allow them to sign up for local events like composting and rooftop gardening workshops. Another important function of the app is that it will recommend prices that different types of recyclable material should be sold at to help residents get good prices for their materials.

Once the kabadiwallas have been mapped, and the app is ready, we plan to hold awareness drives in neighborhoods- encouraging them to segregate their waste at home, compost and sell their recyclables to their local kabadiwalla.

Category of the action

Reducing emissions from waste management

What actions do you propose?


Waste and climate change:

At a global scale, the waste management sector makes a relatively minor contribution to greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, estimated at approximately 3-5% of total anthropogenic emissions in 2005. However, the waste sector is in a unique position to move from being a minor source of global emissions to becoming a major saver of emissions. Although minor levels of emissions are released through waste treatment and disposal, the prevention and recovery of wastes (i.e. as secondary materials or energy) avoids emissions in all other sectors of the economy. A holistic approach to waste management has positive consequences for GHG emissions from the energy, forestry, agriculture, mining, transport, and manufacturing sectors.

Indian Cities and Waste Management:

The generation of Municipal Solid Waste (MSW) is over-riding the population growth rate in all mega-cities in India. In Chennai for example, the population growth between 1991 and 2001 was 21%, while its waste generation grew 61% between 1996 and 2002. Furthermore, the economic and demographic growth of cities, coupled with changing lifestyles of people, changing land use patterns and technological advancements have led to an increase in the complexity of urban MSW management. Nationally, MSW generated in cities increased from 6 teragrams in 1947 to 48 teragrams in 1997 with a per capita increase of 1– 1.33% per year. 

Improper Solid Waste Management is a systemic problem for all of India’s cities, and a study found that 91% of all solid waste is collected and dumped unscientifically in open landfills.

Solid Waste Management in Chennai:

In Chennai 4500 metric tons of waste is generated every day, 68% of which is generated from residences. Waste from commercial centres, restaurants and industry contribute to 14%, 12% and 2% respectively. After collection, Chennai’s municipal waste is disposed at Kodungaiyur and Perungudi, the city’s two official landfills.

Currently, an estimated 18% of waste going to Chennai’s landfills everyday can be recycled, and on average this number varies between 15%-25% depending on which city’s waste is examined.

The Informal Waste Ecosystem:

Apart from official systems of waste management (executed by the city municipality) in India’s major cities, there is a robust ‘informal’ ecosystem of traders in recyclable waste materials that mainly consists of waste pickers, scrapdealers (Kabadiwallas), and wholesalers. Their main incentive is financial profit.

The process is as follows: Waste pickers collect materials, which they sell to Kabadiwallas. The Kabadiwallas sell the materials to specialised wholesalers, who in turn sell the materials to processors. Together, these traders form an important ecosystem for handling recycled waste in the city. This network is connected to many residences, commercial establishments and industries from whom they buy recyclable waste material. 

However, despite their contribution to ensuring that less waste enters the city landfills, they remain largely ignored in mainstream discussions on waste management. While numerous studies on the informal sector have been conducted, most of them focus on socioeconomic issues like marginalization, lack of visibility and formal recognition, stigma, sanitation and hygiene issues. None of these studies have elaborated upon the quantum, or flow of waste that the informal sector is responsible for, and there seems to be very little primary research on these statistics.

Kabadiwalla Connect’s Primary Research:

In order to understand the kabadiwalla ecosystem, a comprehensive questionnaire was formulated, aimed at gathering information from the respondents about the enterprise, their organizational and demographic details, the categories of waste they source and how, including the details of quantities, costs at which they purchase, prices at which they sell at, and the materials that were recycled locally. With the overall objective of understanding the system of scrap dealers and their network, it was conceived that the study would attempt a census of all scrap dealers instead of surveying only a sample of them. 

Currently 631 kabadiwallas are mapped in 3 out of 15 administrative zones in Chennai.An innovative part of the study was the use of Open Data Kit (ODK), a free and open source application for data collection on an android device. This enabled the data to be rapidly processed and analyzed. It also helped us build our simple web information service quickly. 


Quantum of Waste: The research revealed that 631 kabadiwallas sourced back a total of 2161 tonnes of paper, plastic and glass every month. Extrapolating this information to the entire city would mean that kabadiwallas handle around 33% of the entire recyclable waste generated every month. A simple visualization of revenues and quantum of waste per month can be found using this link. It also uses the data from the Corporation of Chennai to help visualize how much more revenue is possible if all the recyclable waste was diverted from the landfill into this ecosystem.

This second link shows the total percentage of recyclable waste handled by the Kabadiwalla ecosystem vs. what’s sent to the landfill every month.

Flow of Materials: Further, the flow of materials was mapped, tracing it from the waste generator through the informal waste ecosystem and all the way up to the processor. In general, it was found that materials move from kabadiwallas to warehouses through a system of middlemen and then finally to the processors and manufacturers.

Price variations per kg of material were quite volatile with big jumps as it moved up the value chain to the processors. PET as an example was sold by kabadiwallas at Rs.13/kg while warehouses sold it to processors at Rs. 23/kg. The price jumps were a function of value additions like storage, segregation, shredding and washing. Detailed flow maps can be found using the links below.

General Flow | Plastic | Paper | Glass | Metal

Demographics, Networks and Revenue: The data analysis revealed that, in general, kabadiwallas were, ubiquitous in the city, with at least 200 kabadiwallas in every zone that was surveyed. On an average, they have been in business for 14 years while the oldest scrap dealer surveyed has been in the business for 65 years. In all, there was at least one person employed with the scrap dealers, while the average number of employees was 1.3. In terms of the average monthly income, a majority of them made more than Rs.20,000 per month. 

Analysis of the costs of resources and their selling prices revealed that the profits were marginal and at times fluctuated. This also revealed specific pathways where certain resources were indeed being aggregated and eventually sent for processing. An interesting fact was that 79% were a part of a labor association and 86% were operating in rented spaces. This could account for the fact that richer neighborhoods like Besant Nagar had fewer kabadiwallas than more peripheral places like Velachery, as rent prices are cheaper making scrap trading more profitable (refer the data platform portal).

Given this context, we propose the following actions:

1. Map the entire kabadiwalla ecosystem in Chennai and develop a smart phone app that provides people simple information on how to segregate and compost at home, makes it easy to connect to their closest kabadiwalla, as well as allows them to sign up for local events like composting and rooftop gardening workshops.  Data will be collected using ODK. The app will also employ a conversational UI to help engage the user.

2. Organize awareness workshops in neighborhoods to get communities to segregate their waste at home, compost and sell recyclables to their local kabadiwalla.

3. Conduct research, and write working papers that help influence policy on integrating the informal waste ecosystem to the more formal ways Indian cities manage their waste.

Who will take these actions?

Kabadiwalla Connect will lead the mapping activities and the development of the smart phone app.

We plan to work with citizen groups and NGOs to help us organize meetings with residents from neighborhoods to help spread awareness about segregation at source and selling to the local kabadiwallas.

We plan to work with the Corporation of Chennai to recognize the contribution of the informal waste ecosystem, and work towards improving how the municipality integrates them into their waste management systems.

Finally, if Chennai proves a successful use case, we plan to take this plan to other cities in India.

Where will these actions be taken?

Primarily in Indian cities, starting in Chennai. However this service could be used to improve the waste management in cities in other developing countries as well - particularly in Latin America.

What are other key benefits?

The activity will result in less waste being sent to the landfill, more revenue for stakeholders in the informal waste sector, as well as a push towards recognizing their contribution to waste management in the city.

The activity could help in developing a heuristic for the implementation of circular economy goals for cities in the developing world - currently kabadiwallas primarily source back paper, plastic, glass and metal - they could also source back post consumer cartons for example - to help a company like Tetrapak meet their Extended Producer Responsibility targets.

How much will emissions be reduced or sequestered vs. business as usual levels?

Leveraging the kabadiwalla ecosystem to divert all the recyclable waste from the landfill would result in the recycling of 300,000 tons of material in Chennai every year.

What are the proposal’s costs?

Around 5,000 USD to map the kabadiwalla network in Chennai over 3 months.

Around 4,000 USD to initiate awareness workshops in pilot neighborhoods.

Time line

First 3 months: map the entire kabadiwalla network in Chennai, and develop the smart phone app.

Months 3 to 9: initiate awareness drives in local neighborhoods and build a community evangelizing segregation at source, composting and selling to the local kabadiwalla.

Months 9 to 12: prepare a policy output that evaluates how much recyclable waste has been diverted through our service, and build a use case for a larger roll-out of such an initiative.

Related proposals


Research References:

Annepu, R. K., (2012). Sustainable Solid Waste Management in India. WTERT, Columbia University. 

Central Pollution Control Board (2007). Management of Municipal Solid Waste. Ministry of Environment & Forests. Parivesh Bhawan, East Arjun Nagar, Delhi I110032.

Chikarmane, P. (2012). Integrating Waste Pickers into Municipal Solid Waste Management in Pune, India. WIEGO Policy Brief (Urban Policies). No 8. 

Department of Economic Affairs, Ministry of Finance, Government of India (2009). Position Paper on the Solid Waste Management Sector in India. Public Private Partnerships in India.

Devi, K. S., Swamy, A. V. V. S., Krishna, R. H. (2014). Studies on the Solid Waste Collection by Rag Pickers at Greater Hyderabad Municipal Corporation, India. International Research Journal of Environment Sciences. Vol. 3(1),13-22

Keen, Michael. "Why We Need To Rethink The Informal Economy". World Economic Forum Blog. N.p., 2015. Web. 14 Aug. 2015.

Marello, M., and and Helwege, A. (2014). Solid Waste Management and Social Inclusion of Waste Pickers: Opportunities and Challenges. GEGI Working paper. Boston University.

Medina, M. (2005). Waste Picker Cooperatives in Developing Countries. WIEGO/Cornell/SEWA Conference on Membership Based Organizations of the Poor, Ahmedabad, India

Press for Kabadiwalla Connect:

NDTV Gadgets360:

Social Story:

The Hindu:

Awards and Recognition:

ClimateSHAPE (World Economic Forum):

Digital Innovations in Smart Cities:

Autodesk Entrepreneur Impact Program: