Like many municipalities across the world, Lahore’s struggles with solid waste management are not unique. A steadily increasing volume of wate produced by a growing population, coupled with the financial limitations, has meant that the municipal waste management system is unable to serve the entire city; therefore creating a gap for which the informal sector has stepped in to fill.
Drawing inspiration from what Cornea et al.(2017: 730) describes as a ‘situated’ UPE lens- “an engagement with the everyday that is rooted in local contexts and identities,” deeper analysis is granted into how inherently political waste management is, and how the value attached to it by a network of actors varies; (re)producing the uneven socio-natures of the city. Lahore’s informal waste scavengers, who seek to find recyclables from household waste, exemplify how “one man’s trash is another man’s treasure” and is the basis for an income in many communities who have formed entire livelihoods in transforming “waste” into resources. The absence of an official recycling system in Lahore has meant that all recycling is operated entirely through informal networks of scavengers and junkshop resellers. This is a particularly interesting dimension of waste management as it reflects the complexities and ambiguity of waste in the urban global south. The same waste that had been discarded and was an object of repulsion, simultaneously is desirable and deemed valuable for the city’s poorest (Demaria and Schindler, 2016).
Scavengers, also known as koorreywalas, are responsible for the estimated 27% of waste by weight that is recycled in the city (Masood et al., 2014). Their work consists of primary collection from households, sorting and transporting to waste transfer sites (or storage containers), as well as selling the recyclables to junkshop dealers. Such informal labour is an unregulated practice but is undeniably pragmatic as ‘recycling activities in Lahore reduce the environmental burden of solid waste, but also enhance economic opportunities’ (Batool et al., 2008) by facilitating a new circular economy that eventually is formalised. The retrieved material that would have ended up in a landfill site is sold and thus renewed as a potential input for remanufacturing; thereby challenging the modern industrial linear process that thrives on a production-consumption-disposal flow.
Asim et al. (2012) studies the socio-demographic characteristics of Southwestern Lahore’s scavengers. Unsurprisingly, the city’s poorest groups take on this work, including Afghan refugees who lack IDs and have no other skills, or the poor Christian minority in the area. These workers are not only socially marginalised, but their labour is rendered invisible as (Masood et al, 2014: 844) notes the poor public perception of the informal workers and how citizens are “often unaware of the presence of waste pickers at the communal waste container sites or even on the streets”. The stark disparity between the crucial work of scavengers in managing the entire city’s recycling operation and their lack of recognition can be traced back to how stigmatised waste work is. It is deemed as “lowly” and “impure”. The ‘disgust’ and culturally constructed understandings of waste as “matter out of place” (Douglas, 1966) has extended to even those who deal with it and resurrect the valueable from it. Instead of a collective gratitude towards waste collectors and scavengers who are in fact ‘re-ordering the environment’ and easing anxieties around waste through their work, the public chooses to ignore them and leaves them to operate in the background, unacknowleged.
To be continued…
Asim, M., Batool, S.A. and Chaudhry, M.N., 2012. Scavengers and their role in the recycling of waste in Southwestern Lahore. Resources, Conservation and Recycling, 58, pp.152-162.
Batool, S.A., Chaudhry, N. and Majeed, K., 2008. Economic potential of recycling business in Lahore, Pakistan. Waste management, 28(2), pp.294-298.
Cornea, N., Véron, R. and Zimmer, A., 2017. Clean city politics: An urban political ecology of solid waste in West Bengal, India. Environment and Planning A, 49(4), pp.728-744.
Demaria, F. and Schindler, S., 2016. Contesting urban metabolism: Struggles over waste‐to‐energy in Delhi, India. Antipode, 48(2), pp.293-313.
Douglas, M., 1966. 1966: Purity and danger. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.
Masood, M., Barlow, C.Y. and Wilson, D.C., 2014. An assessment of the current municipal solid waste management system in Lahore, Pakistan. Waste Management & Research, 32(9), pp.834-847.