Terry Slavin travels to Bangalore to meet the waste pickers who are gaining respect and higher incomes through The Body Shop’s community trade plastic waste programme

In a desolate waste ground opposite an upmarket apartment building in the outskirts of Bangalore, women and men squat under scant cover from the boiling sun, sifting with their bare hands through mountains of rubbish discarded by the building’s residents.

It is a scene that seems far removed from smiling women in saris balancing mangoes on their heads, or farmers in Kenya harvesting tea tree fronds, the familiar faces of The Body Shop’s community trade programme, which has been going for 32 years.

Still, the Bangalore waste pickers, who are the poorest and most low-caste denizens of this city of 8.5 million people, are the newest recruits to the cosmetics company’s community trade programme. Instead of providing ingredients for The Body Shop’s products, they are contributing recycled plastics to be reused in its packaging, in a novel solution to the plastics crisis that also addresses an increasingly urgent social need: to improve the lives of people in the informal recycling sector.

Why not use community trade to tackle one of the world’s biggest problems?

In May, the project became the first plastic recycling scheme to achieve Fair Trade certification by the World Fair Trade Organization.

“It isn’t [a project] providing natural ingredients or a gift or accessories [like other Community Trade projects],” says the company’s global community trade manager, Lee Mann, “but the principles are the same: to use the power of trade to promote positive change. Why not use community trade to tackle one of the world’s biggest problems?”

Recycling may be key to tackling the rising tide of plastic pollution, but most developing countries have no formal infrastructure in place. According to supply chain human rights NGO Verité, the human cogs in the circular economy wheels in much of Latin America and South-east Asia are an “invisible population” of street pickers, small businesses, and family operations who work in hazardous and dirty conditions, for which they are only able to scratch a subsistence living.

Bangalore's waste pickers are the most low-caste denizens of the city of 8.5 million people.  (Credit: The Body Shop)

In India alone, 1.5 million waste pickers collect and sort more than 6,000 tonnes of plastic every day that could otherwise pollute rivers and oceans.

When The Body Shop invited a small group of journalists and social media influencers to India to see its community-traded plastics project earlier this year, we met waste pickers and waste entrepreneurs involved in the full spectrum, up to workers in the aggregation centre where PET plastic is separated out and baled to be sent to the Netherlands for reprocessing into food-grade plastic for bottles of Shea shampoo.

But the first stop was the primary recycling unit run by Shaktiman, whose 22-year old daughter, Dolly, is the poster girl for The Body Shop’s programme.

Waste pickers have lots of trouble knowing what price they are going to get paid, even when they are going to get paid

Mann explains that most waste pickers in India are Dalits, previously known as Untouchables, but many others, like Shaktiman and his family who moved to Bangalore from Delhi four years ago, are migrants from other parts of India, and prey to discrimination and poor living and working conditions.

Watching the waste pickers comb through rubbish, picking out broken glass, metals, textiles and paper with their bare hands, the difference being made by The Body Shop programme is not apparent. Mann admits that conditions in the rat-infested and crowded site are “not healthy at all”.

But he explains that Shaktiman, who employs and houses 13-14 people at any one time at his site, which he rents from a private landlord, has only been supplying PET for The Body Shop for the past four months, and it will take time to build the trust and investment that will be required to implement change.

Shaktiman, who runs the recycling unit, pictured with his wife. (Credit: The Body Shop)

Andrew Almack, CEO of Plastics for Change, the for-profit social enterprise that is supplying The Body Shop with PET plastic, explains that Shaktiman already benefits from something that others in India do not enjoy: a secure and above-market price for PET, which The Body Shop has guaranteed for the next three years.

Almack says waste pickers in India face a precarious payment system for the materials they collect. “They have lots of trouble knowing what price they are going to get paid, even when they are going to get paid” by scrap dealers, who themselves are living hand-to-mouth existences, Almack points out.

The volatility particularly applies to high-value PET, the most recyclable form of plastic, where prices can fluctuate by as much as 50%.

The waste pickers are very resilient. I love to work with them. They have to fight with local people, with the pigs and the dogs in the streets just to pick up waste

Plastics for Change has created a mobile phone app with integrated voice response and SMS messaging that allows even illiterate waste pickers to find out which scrap dealers will take their PET, the price they will be paid, and incentivises the dealer to pay on delivery.

The same app, which won MIT’s inclusive innovation challenge this year, also connects waste pickers to Hasiru Dala, a non-profit organisation that provides social services to about a third of Bangalore’s estimated 35,000 waste pickers.

It is run by Nalini Shekar, the dynamic wife of Shekar Prabhakar, who heads up Hasiru Dala Innovations (HDI), the Plastics for Change franchise that is supplying The Body Shop’s PET requirements.

Lee Mann of The Body Shop says the plastics scheme is helping promote positive change. (Credit: The Body Shop)

The pair set up HDI in 2011 after moving to Bangalore from Delhi, where Nalini had worked with waste communities for decades, co-founding India’s first trade union for waste pickers in 1997.

Together, the pair have worked to formalise the informal waste picker economy in Bangalore, helping them win contracts to run many of the waste collection centres in the city. Nalini explains that the partnership with The Body Shop and Plastics for Change will enable HDI  to invest in more improved facilities, such as automated belts, and in health and safety equipment like gloves and masks.

“The waste pickers are very, very strong and resilient. I love to work with them,” says Nalini. “They are like cacti, even in the desert they grow. They have to fight with local people, with the pigs and the dogs in the streets just to pick up waste.”

Armed with the ID cards, waste pickers can access the city’s services for the first time and take out bank accounts

Shekar says helping waste pickers to get ID cards is a critical first step to getting them the respect they deserve and lifting them out of poverty.

“Until 2014 no one was sure who owned the waste,” Nalini said. “People used to say they were beggars and thieves and police would round them up.” Armed with the ID cards, not only do the police leave them alone, waste pickers can access the city’s services for the first time, and take out bank accounts.

Almack, a 29-year-old Canadian who last year made the Forbes 30 Under 30 Asia list, credits a meeting with The Body Shop’s international sourcing director, Mark Davis, at Ethical Corporation’s Responsible Business Summit in Singapore in 2016 as the turning point for his nascent start-up.

Oceans campaigner Pixie Geldof was one of the influences invited to see The Body Shop's plastics scheme. (Credit: The Body Shop)

The Body Shop, which was his first commercial contract, gave Almack seed funding to set up the Plastics for Change supply chain, technical support to improve the quality of the plastic, and help developing his franchise model, which is based on community trade principles of elevating conditions and pay for workers.

Almack says paying waste pickers a proper wage is not only the right thing to do, it makes good business sense.

“The trouble with recycling in India today is that there is no really good quality-control process. Plastic is mixed together so that it can only be downcycled to make things like plastic buckets or logs or furniture. …. Consumer goods companies have trouble getting consistency of supply at a cost that isn’t prohibitive.”

We give them a stabilised price, a way to access the market and a tech platform 

He said Plastics for Change’s franchise model aims to it make it easy for Indian entrepreneurs to set up recycling businesses to meet demand.

“We give them a stabilised price, a way to access the market and a tech platform that allows them to source the plastic really effectively. If a brand needs so much plastic we reverse-engineer the supply chain to ensure they get it on time and in full. And by having transparency in the supply chain, we can ensure quality is met at each stage.”

Although Hasiru Dala Innovations is Plastics for Change’s main franchise partner in fulfilling The Body Shop’s initial demand for 250 tonnes of Fair Trade plastic, Almack said, “other franchises will feed in as they ramp up volumes.”

Andrew Almack of Plastics for Change and Nalini Shekar of Hasiru Dala Innovations. (Credit: The Body Shop)

By 2022, the beauty brand expects to be purchasing more than 900 tonnes of recycled PET and empowering up to 2,500 waste pickers.

Although PET is being sent to the Netherlands for reprocessing to meet The Body Shop’s need for food-grade PET, he said there are reprocessing facilities in India that can meet demand from other clients, including in the auto industry, which are looking to incorporate PET and other types of recycled plastics, such as polypropylene and high-density polyethylene, in their supply chains.

There are two other Plastics for Change franchisees, and another 50 in the pipeline, including in coastal areas in Karnataka and Kerala. Having just secured C$150,000 in impact investment from World Vision Canada, and a $20,000 grant from MIT through its Solve programme Almack sees a big future in meeting demand from consumer goods companies to integrate high-quality recycled plastics into their supply chains.

Do we put our head above the parapet and start talking about what we are doing today, or do we wait until it’s perfect?

At the launch of the project in London in May, The Body Shop also announced its new sustainable packaging strategy, aiming to close the loop by integrating a minimum of 75% post-recycled plastic across all its product lines by 2022, up from 10% currently, in partnership with recycling specialist TerraCycle.

Community-traded plastic, while important, will only be able to meet a small part of this demand, so The Body Shop is incentivising consumers to return empty packaging to shops in five countries – the UK, Australia, Canada, France and Germany – with the goal of collecting 25% more packaging than it sells. By 2030 the company said it will reduce the type of plastics it uses in its packaging from 20 to three, making them easier to recycle.

The Body Shop’s CEO David Boynton acknowledged to Ethical Corporation that the company faces big challenges meeting its stretching targets, particularly when it comes to replacing harder to recycle plastics, like the black lids on all its bottles. “We are so far from where we want to be, but this project is a good step in the right direction,” he said.

A waste picker in the baling centre at the Bangalore recycling site. (The Body Shop)

He said the company is determined to meet its goals, and wants to share where it is on the journey, even if that means showing journalists the less than ideal conditions of the waste pickers at Shaktiman’s recycling site.

The Body Shop won’t be able to improve conditions for waste pickers on its own, he pointed out. Other brands need to join to create a bigger market for fairly traded plastics.

“Do we put our head above the parapet and start talking [about what we are doing] today, or do we wait until it’s perfect?”

Terry Slavin travelled to India as a guest of The Body Shop.

Main picture credit: The Body Shop

This article is part of the in-depth Human Rights briefing. See also:

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How Slavefreetrade is using blockchain to shine a light on the good guys

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The Body Shop  Fair Trade  Verite  Plastics for Change  Hasiru Dala  PET  plastics recycling  Nalini Shekar 

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