Self-driving cars and manufacturing automation are widely discussed as challenges for the contemporary workforce. Less visible, however, are labor questions at the other end of the commodity chain: is household garbage collected by hand or lifted by giant compactors? Does sorting for recycling take place on conveyer belts or in the back of informal workers’ carts? How are these decisions made?
These questions became especially urgent in countries across the Global South over the last few decades, when people increasingly concentrated in cities and became reliant on the packaged goods that are predestined to become trash.
While administrators feverishly cooked up policies under the guidance of international organizations, informal recyclers continued to plie streets, knocking on doors and mining dumpsites in search of waste they sell into recycling markets. Without the support of formal policies or programs, and often in spite of them, informal workers have sustained recycling globally.
I examined the tensions between such informal recyclers and newly mechanized formal public-private partnership (PPP) garbage programs in Delhi, India. For nearly two years, I worked alongside informal door-to-door collectors who collected garbage and harvested scrap to sell for recycling. While this earns their families a living, it also provides environmental benefits and constitutes the city’s only recycling program. However, their activities have been actively threatened by PPP collection trucks, compacters, and incinerators.
Despite these threats, my research found that Delhi’s informal recyclers were not displaced, though indeed they lost some of their territory. Meanwhile, the PPP program was not expanded as planned.
Why informal recyclers have prevailed
In a recent article, I explain that the persistence of informal recyclers in Delhi did not result from organized efforts, as in some Latin American cities, but rather from their ability to secure what I call practical legitimacy.
Practical legitimacy refers to a group’s ability to gain recognition as the rightful providers of a good or service through everyday actions, rather than formal advocacy or public campaigns. Without explicit rules or publicity, practical action tends to rely on deeper social structures like class, gender, race, or caste relations, which shape everyday decision-making.
Even where formalized collection services were introduced, I found that middle-class residents, who are overwhelmingly upper-caste, tended to continue using informal recyclers because of the more personalized services they offered—practices that were embedded in social status differences, especially those based on caste.
Delhi residents do not tend to recycle because of environmental benefits, civic requirements, or moral pressure, as in wealthier countries. Although recycling rates are remarkably high in the city, middle-class residents tended to understand recycling as something that is done in wealthier countries like the United States or Singapore, not India. Informal recyclers also did not see themselves as fitting this image. Rather, for them, recycling is a source of cash.
Dalit and Muslim workers who serve the city’s middle classes remove everything that can be sold: plastics, papers, metals, glass, and even human hair and stale bread. Recycling is based entirely on markets for trash, such as the going rate for plastics, which depend on global oil prices, and local demand for stale bread, which is used to feed cows and buffaloes.
As for the new collection trucks, residents in the neighborhoods where they were introduced were generally sympathetic to the idea of using the trucks. The concept of a modern garbage collection system appealed to them. But, in practice, they tended to use the services of informal collection to which they were accustomed. Residents saw the informal services as better, even though they had to pay a small monthly fee for it, and the collection trucks were free.
The social context of informal recycling
For one, the informal recyclers tended to be more reliable. While the trucks drove at a regular speed down the street, leaving it to residents to hear them and bring down their trash, informal recyclers came at the same time each day.
Informal recyclers were also willing to come right to the door, even climbing multiple flights of stairs, or they would catch buckets that residents lowered by string. The trucks required residents to bring their garbage out onto the street.
The preference for informal recyclers was not only a matter of convenience or of being able to pay for more service. Unlike the collection trucks, informal recyclers were willing to do other tasks beyond recycling.
For example, informal recyclers would frequently clear building stairways of the infamous dust coating the city daily. They also willingly performed odd jobs such as cleaning up after events like weddings or helping people move.
In turn, residents’ relationships with recyclers took on the character of patronage, with upper-caste, middle-class households providing for lower-caste Dalit and Muslim workers. Recyclers provided pliable labor, while residents offered variable remuneration, along with tea, snacks, leftover food, and used clothing.
These relationships are embedded in deeper social systems of hierarchy and dependence based on caste, which engenders practical legitimacy. By recognizing informal recyclers as the rightful providers of trash disposal services, residents, (rather than laws or advertisements), legitimated their services.
Residents I spoke with explained that they continued to use informal recyclers instead of the formal trucks because of their longstanding relationships and familiarity. As one resident put it: “We know them.” Others used the possessive form, referring to informal recyclers as “ours,” which referred to longer-standing kinds of caste-based labor arrangements.
These personalized interactions, I found, indicated deeper relations of dependence that operated to affirm residents’ higher social status. Residents positioned themselves as the quasi patrons of lower-caste Dalit and Muslim informal recyclers, who in turn catered to their upper-caste clients’ specific and variable expectations, allowing residents to avoid the stigma of bringing out their own trash.
The unintended environmental contributions of informal recycling
What can we learn from the persistence of informal recycling despite the introduction of formalized trash collection services?
In Delhi, the technologies used to formalize and rationalize recycling actually exacerbate environmental problems through modes of waste disposal that are inferior in ecological terms to the work of informal recyclers. Yet the preference for informal recyclers is not based on ecological considerations; rather, informalized and personalized collection accords with middle-class, upper-caste expectations of service work and untouchability practices.
Put differently, social inequality has inadvertently created environmentally preferable outcomes because one group’s livelihoods depend on another’s trash. The environmental benefits that result are the product not of environmental values – as would be the case for most recycling programs in wealthy countries – but rather a by-product of the desire for convenience, status maintenance, and outsourcing the labor of menial tasks.
The case of informal recyclers suggests that formal services and rational technologies do not necessarily match the services of informal trash collection. This may be the case for other personal service work provided by informal labor in the Global South. Where stark economic inequalities and marginalization have created informalized work sectors like the one for recycling in Delhi, technologies intended to improve public services can have potentially devastating environmental and social effects.
Dana Kornberg. 2020. “Competing for Jurisdiction: Practical Legitimation and the Persistence of Informal Recycling in Urban India” in Social Forces 2020.
A free, pre-publication version of the article is available here.
This post is a collaboration with RC02 Economy and Society of the International Sociological Association.