How wastepickers are affected by COVID-19

How wastepickers are affected by COVID-19

“I went to my sister’s place,” Rama says. “She told me, ‘I have two kilos of rice left. Let’s just divide it up.’” That’s what they did. Divided up the rice, cooked it with salt and made it last for 2 days. Now, when I called her up, she was brewing tea leaves for breakfast. “What to do? There’s nothing left,” she sighed. Rama picks trash on one of Delhi’s largest landfills. In her gali (slum-alley), the kids are all being fed tea for lunch and dinner. “Lal chai-what to do?” Rama’s neighbour, Shanti, tells us. What she means is boiled tea without milk and sugar. One of the problems with this, they explain over the course of our various telephonic conversations, is that the tea runs out of colour and flavour when you keep on boiling the same tea leaves again. Truth be revealed, the children of Bhalsawa landfill are drinking boiled water for meals.

These are the same children who excel in science and math-the focus of Chintan’s No Child in Trash Programme here. Two years ago, a child invented a cooler for the summer, made entirely of the trash from the landfill nearby, so his mother wouldn’t sweat so much while cooking his lunch. Today, she can’t sweat, because there’s nothing to cook. A community kitchen the chief minister promised hasn’t yet started-nobody has seen this scale of crisis, and they’re struggling to with relief.

Meanwhile, there’s curfew. The police is not letting anyone out of their homes. It’s the most desolate you’ll ever see this city of 25 million plus. Zoom is the new Chintan office, where dozens of people are collecting donations to create ration kits. A kit will have enough rice, wheat, oil and a few spices for a family of 6, if they eat modestly-enough, but nothing to spare. There’s soap too, and masks. School students, interns, retired folks, former colleagues-they’re all transferring donations. While one teams tracks this, another is getting permissions to step out to distribute the kits. Two colleagues are convincing stores to let them buy in bulk-assuring them they are no hoarders or profiteers.

Wastepickers who offer formal services can hope to work-Chintan’s got them their documents. But they won’t get to sell the recyclables they collect, leaving them without significant incomes. Those who work at landfills, or operate in dumpsters and other informal spaces, are entirely jobless. They have nothing, not even the money for food, which they buy every few days, as they sell waste. Most Indian wastepickers experience COVID19 like this. Jobless.

Bordering Delhi and Haryana, Kusumpur Pahari was ravaged beyond hunger. Located on the border of one of India’s most ancient forests earlier, this slum began asking for a basic human right to survive the pandemic: water. It had none. The government ignored its plea. “How are we supposed to survive this disease? They’re saying wash your hands. But with what?” asked Ram Agya, an anguished father of two. A twitter campaign by Chintan and Safai Sena resulted in a response by the government: There are hundreds of places to wash hands, use those. Problem was, there was nothing walking distance. “The police are beating us if we go looking for water,” said a despondent Rekha, on a video the community made. Eventually, using phones and videos, the story was shared with the Indian Express. And then, pressurized, water reached these folks.

Most wastepickers also experience COVID19 like this: marginalized. They often live in un-recognized slums (yes, the worst housing is also stratified). This means they need to fight harder to ride out this pandemic. “Here we are, serving all these people all these years, keeping their localities spotless,” says Rokhan, a wastepicker in New Delhi. “Don’t you think we are right in asking for their help now? We also have to keep our children safe.” He’s been asking people whose waste he collects, to help. Some give him food every day, others some money. Some have told him it’s also hard for them. “I know everyone won’t help us, but I know some people are decent. And some understand that if we don’t show up tomorrow, the disease may become worse for everyone,” Rokhan points out. “I’m seeing who is what kind of person-it’ll be clear now.”

Tips to Score High on the Rokhan Test:

  • Be civil to waste collectors. Tell them you know of their conditions, and you are available to help them in ways they need.
  • Give them dry rations to cook
  • Give them soap
  • Help them wash their hands when they finish their work near your home
  • Give them money-even small amounts help
  • Segregate your waste, compost the wet fraction
  • Hand over dry waste, without sharps
  • If anyone is ill or even quarantined, don’t hand over waste. It can infect. Follow municipal advisories.
  • Talk to your neighbours to do the same.
  • Ask the waste collectors what specific problems they face. Help iron it out.


Online donations:



The Chintan Team



Dear friends,

‍We hope you are safe and doing OK. We know that, like us, you may be stuck at home, worried about loved ones, or your job, or about having enough food and toilet paper. Right now, many of us are without childcare, without community, and with a lot of worry and anxiety.

The next several months and possibly even longer will be really hard for everyone around the world. But we’re in this together, and we know this time will end. We will come out the other side looking to rebuild the connections that sustain our communities and economy. In the meantime let’s stick together in the ways we can – sharing information, keeping safe, making soup, and washing our hands.

At UPSTREAM, we want to support you and add value to your lives during this time of crisis. We’ve been getting lots of questions from the UPSTREAM and Break Free From Plastic communities about reuse in a time of pandemics like COVID-19. Here are some thoughts on the common questions we’ve received:


1. Are reusables safe?

– Yes, the short answer is that soap and hot water are effective at killing coronavirus, other viruses, and bacteria. Home and commercial dishwashers are more effective than hand-washing because of the added benefit of high temperature and prolonged washing.

– State health codes ensure that commercial dishwashing will kill all pathogens, and the coronavirus is especially sensitive to soap and heat.

– As Dr. Vineet Menachery, a microbiologist at the University of Texas Medical Branch recently said, “I wouldn’t expect any virus to survive a dishwasher.”‍

2. Aren’t disposables safer?

– No, they’re not when compared to properly washed reusables. Single-use disposables can harbor viruses and pathogenic bacteria. They are subject to whatever pathogens have settled on them from manufacture, transport, inventory stocking, and eventual use.

– In addition, according to a recently-released peer-reviewed scientific consensus statement, over 12,000 chemicals are used in food packaging, and many of them are hazardous to human health. Migration of these toxic chemicals out of disposables into our food and drinks is not an issue with non-plastic reusables. ‍

3. Can I use my reusable water bottle or coffee cup?

– Absolutely. Coronavirus mainly spreads through coughs and sneezes, not your reusable water bottle or cup.

– The best water refill options when you’re out and on-the-go are hands-free electronic water refilling stations like you see at the airport. If you don’t have easy access to one of these, then you can use the tap or the water cooler. Just don’t let your water bottle directly touch the spigot, and be mindful about washing your hands after touching communal surfaces.

– The same logic applies to your coffee cup. Just don’t touch your cup directly to the spigot or coffee pot, and wash your hands.

– Also, don’t forget to wash your bottle or cup with soap and water, preferably in a dishwasher.

4. Large coffee chains (like Starbucks and Dunkin’ Donuts) recently announced they are no longer allowing customers to bring their own cups to use and refill in its stores. Do you think this will continue, and what does this mean?

– Today, businesses like Starbucks are rightly focused on how to keep us all safe. But when the coronavirus passes, plastic pollution will continue to be a huge environmental issue.

– The coronavirus crisis is showing us that we don’t have the systems we need for reusable to-go, take-out, and food delivery. Because of this, there is likely to be an explosion of single-use products as restaurants scramble to shift to food delivery to survive, and people shift to dining at home instead of eating out.

– But in parts of the world, companies have already developed reusable to-go services for take-out and food delivery. These businesses provide clean, sanitized reusable cups and to-go containers to restaurants and cafes. The dirty ones are collected, washed and sanitized in commercial dishwashers, then put back into service.

– Imagine a future with food delivery systems built on clean, sanitized reusable to-go containers and cups. How great would it be if we had reusable food delivery systems in place all over the United States like Green Tiffin and Planted Table in San Francisco, and Superfine Tiffins in New York City? Imagine how much less waste would be generated in this crisis if we had all this in place already.

– And so, we’re going to continue to focus on how to help restaurants, cafes and venues – who are going to be greatly impacted – to be empowered and ready to make these changes. Especially because doing so can help them save money.

5. Will coronavirus kill the growing zero waste lifestyle, built on bring-your-own (BYO), reuse, and bulk shopping?

– No, the zero waste lifestyle is here to stay and is gaining more traction every day. While the coronavirus will change many things in our lives for a time, it won’t change our core values like working for healthy people, a healthy planet, and a sustainable economy.

– But just like take-out and food delivery, this crisis is also showing us that we need better systems for BYO and bulk shopping. Hands-free dispensers and methods are part of the solution, as are on-site sanitizing for BYO. In addition, businesses can create new systems to provide clean, sanitized reusable containers for bulk purchasing on deposit – similar to how local dairies are bringing back the reusable milk bottle.

We hope these thoughts and tips are useful to you as you navigate these difficult times. We’re going to be working to provide helpful insights, build community, and add value to your life in the coming months.

If you’re interested, sign up to receive e-mail updates from us, connect with us on social, or stay tuned to the Indisposable Podcast. If you’ve got kids at home, check out our just-launched YouTube channel where they can learn about solutions to plastic pollution – including an episode on how kids got single-use plastic out of their school. We’d also love to hear from you! Drop us an email at or send us a direct message on Instagram or Facebook.

Most importantly, take care of yourself, stay safe and hold your loved ones close.


All our Best,

Matt, Julie, Lauren, Berna, Inder, Eva, Brooking, Erin,
Miriam, Vanessa, Samantha and the rest of the UPSTREAM Team


Chemicals in food packaging: a global health threat

Chemicals in food packaging: a global health threat

Environment groups in Asia Pacific call on policy makers to beef up single-use plastics ban; phase-out toxic chemicals from food packaging; and mandate safe, reusable alternatives

Australia/India/Malaysia/Nepal/Philippines—Close to 200 environmental and public health organizations led by the UNWRAPPED Project (UPSTREAM, Zero Waste Europe, and GAIA) released a Call to Action in response to a recently issued peer-reviewed Scientific Consensus Statement signed by 33 world-renowned scientists warning chemicals used in single-use plastics and food packaging represents a significant threat to human and planetary health-particularly the health of children.

The Consensus statement clearly states the facts:

  • Approximately 12,000 chemicals are intentionally used in packaging and other forms of food contact materials
  • An enormous body of research – over 1200 studies- shows that these chemicals migrate from packaging into food and beverages
  • Amongst those chemicals, many have been proven hazardous for human health: exposure may lead to cancer, heart disease, inflammatory bowel disease, rheumatoid arthritis, genotoxicity, chronic diseases (such as atherosclerosis, cancer, diabetes, cardiovascular diseases), and autoimmune diseases
  • Many of these chemicals are never tested for human health effects
  • For most of these chemicals, their presence is undisclosed

Many of those chemicals, including phthalates, bisphenols and PFAs, are used in single-use packaging, made of plastic but also paper & board. The lack of disclosure by producers regarding chemicals used in packaging means that the risks associated with the use of those packaging cannot be evaluated. Consumers and regulators aren’t the only ones in the dark — many packaging producers and waste managers are unaware of the chemicals present in the packaging they process and possibly recycle in other products.

Hence, close to 200 organizations signed the Call to Action and demanded regulators and industry to protect public health and the environment by acting to:

  1. Ensure full disclosure and traceability of chemicals used in packaging throughout the supply chain;
  2. Restrict the use of hazardous chemicals in food packaging (and products), and prevent regrettable substitution; and
  3. Adopt policies that support the transition towards safe, reusable, and refillable packaging.

The Call to Action is launched globally with simultaneous media events in the Asia Pacific region (Australia, India, Malaysia, Nepal, and Philippines).

We are in close contact with plastic toxins daily and our exposure to chemicals continue to grow as plastic continues to be produced and used. Plastic is not only out there, it’s in all of us!  Consumers can make a difference by refusing single use plastics and food packaged or wrapped in plastics. Stay safe, revive our traditional practices. – Mageswari Sangaralingam, Consumers Association of Penang (Malaysia)

The ever-growing body of evidence that plastics is not only damaging our environment but is also a menace to health underscores the urgent need to transition away from single-use plastics, especially as food packaging.  The health and environmental havoc that single-use plastics bring far outweigh any of their perceived benefits, and it is time for us to be smart and start avoiding them to protect our health.  Nothing is more vital than our health, and nothing sustains life better than a healthy environment. – Ramon San Pascual, Health Care Without Harm-Southeast Asia (Philippines)

Australia is on the cusp of significant systemic change following the decision to ban waste exports to our Asia Pacific neighbours.  This week the Australian government held a National Plastics Summit to respond to the global plastic pollution crisis.  The success of these initiatives will depend upon the Australian government’s recognition that plastic food packaging currently represents a global human health threat.  Unless immediate action is taken to address the systemic regulatory failures that have allowed toxic and hazardous substances to be used in plastic food packaging, then there is a very real likelihood that Australia’s circular economy will be poisoned and further harm caused to human health, our environment and future generations.  The Australian government must act swiftly to eliminate toxic and hazardous substances from plastic food packaging and require full life cycle assessments of all chemicals used in plastic production.  It is well past time for the plastic packaging industry to be held accountable for their design failures and the adverse global consequences this has inflicted on human health and our planet. – Jane Bremmer, National Toxics Network (Australia)

Plastic packaged food has flooded the Himalaya in recent times, dramatically changing food habits, especially of the younger generation. This enticement and promotion of ill health needs to stop. These plastic packaging litter the entire Himalaya and retrieving it is near impossible in the high mountain. – Priyadarshinee Shrestha/Rajendra P. Gurung/Roshan Rai, Zero Waste Himalaya, India

For many years in Nepal, we serve our food in leaf plates and clay cups during big social or religious festivals.  Similarly, when we go shopping, we used to get the items in paper or leaf packaging and for liquid items, we get it in glass or metal pots.  We were practicing Zero Waste in Nepal for as long as I can remember.  But nowadays, everything is packed in plastics and other packaging loaded with toxic chemicals.  It is time we return to our traditional practices and discourage the use of those packaging to make ourselves healthy while promoting Zero Waste. – Mahesh Nakarmi, HECAF360 (Nepal)

Our communities are a rich resource of traditional materials, practices and systems that worked without exposing the consumer to the toxic chemicals that came with plastic food packaging.  We got sidetracked for a few decades by the plastic packaging industry.  It’s time to reject this plastic-packaged food culture and reclaim and, if necessary, update and scaleup on the sensible, safe alternatives we used to have. – Beau Baconguis, Plastics Campaigner, GAIA Asia Pacific

In the Philippines, so much of our food is in plastic bags and plastic containers and some people even microwave food in plastics, yet many studies have shown that chemicals can migrate from plastics into food.  About half of the nearly 12,000 chemicals allowed as food additives are food contact chemicals (FCCs) but many of them have never been tested for endocrine disruption and other hazardous properties. – Dr. Jorge Emmanuel, Silliman University, Dumaguete, Philippines

Call to Action

Scientific Consensus Statement

Links to national press releases:

New scientific report reveals toxic and hazardous chemicals in plastic food packaging (Australia)

International experts call for food packaging safety measures (Philippines)



Sonia G. Astudillo, GAIA Asia Pacific Communications Officer, +917-5969286;

Jane Bremmer, National Toxics Network (Australia);

Roshan Rai, Zero Waste Himalaya (India);

Mageswari Sangaralingam, Consumers Association of Penang (Malaysia);

Mahesh Nakarmi, HECAF360 (Nepal);

Pats Oliva, Health Care Without Harm-Southeast Asia Communications Officer (Philippines);


GAIA (Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives) is a worldwide alliance of grassroots groups, non-governmental organizations, and individuals whose mission is to catalyze a global shift towards environmental justice by strengthening grassroots social movements that advance solutions to waste and pollution. 

UPSTREAM works with businesses, schools, and communities to transition to a throw-away-free culture. We have launched campaigns across the country to make single-use history and “indisposable” the new norm.

Zero Waste Europe is the European network of communities, local leaders, businesses, experts, and change agents working towards the elimination of waste in our society.

We empower communities to redesign their relationship with resources, and to adopt smarter lifestyles and sustainable consumption patterns in line with a circular economy.




In an aim to re-amplify the call to assess, reduce, and eliminate the use of harmful single-use plastics in healthcare, hospitals and medical institutions in the Philippines together with the bigger break free from plastic movement, pledge to uphold and promote sustainable waste management in order to protect the health of the planet and the people.

“As the only sector with healing as a mission, our hospitals and health organizations have an important leadership role to play in the bigger movement against plastics, because plastic pollution is also a public health issue,” Ramon San Pascual said; Executive Director of Health Care Without Harm (HCWH) Southeast Asia. He added that, “today, the hospitals where we conducted the first hospital waste and brand audits back in 2018, are already experiencing the impacts of the plastic reduction strategies we have recommended.”

For instance, during the Public Launch of the Break Free From Plastic Healthcare Network in Quezon City, pilot hospitals have shared their initial achievements like Alabang Medical Center where they have experienced reduction in infectious waste volume, and in single-use plastic bottles through installation of water fountains in hospital floors. St. Paul Hospital Cavite shared that they have stopped purchasing non-essential plastics by installing water stations in each hospital floor and providing brewed coffee instead of sachets. On the other hand, the St. Paul’s Hospital in Iloilo has engaged with their supplier in terms of the disposal of purchased goods, and lastly, Mary Johnston Hospital in Tondo, are talking to possible suppliers of glass IV bottles to replace the plastic ones.

San Pascual finally expressed that, “through this project launch and network building, more hospitals are being called to help in the banning of single-use plastics in the health facility and in the communities, to continue in pushing for the right policies and fighting against false solutions like waste-to-energy, and especially in setting an example for other institutions, work places, and even campuses.” ###

Waste Management Agrees to Identify Gaps in Recycling Infrastructure as Step Toward Increasing Plastics Recycling

Waste Management Agrees to Identify Gaps in Recycling Infrastructure as Step Toward Increasing Plastics Recycling

Media contact: Stefanie Spear,, 216-387-1609

BERKELEY, CA—FEB. 25, 2020 — Following in-depth engagement by As You Sow and Trillium Asset Management, Waste Management, Inc. (WM) has committed to publishing a report that could help ease the recycling crisis that has developed in parts of the United States. The report will identify gaps in recycling infrastructure, and discuss how many of its processing facilities have been upgraded, which can boost material yield.

China’s 2018 ban on plastic waste imports exposed the fragility of parts of the U.S. recycling collection and processing system. In some areas, there is no market for collected recyclable plastics due to historical reliance on China for processing. To help address this situation, Trillium and As You Sow filed a shareholder proposal with WM for 2020, asking it to report on how it can increase the scale and pace of efforts to boost recycling rates, especially in relation to plastic pollution.

The company will provide a report to help identify basic gaps in plastic recycling infrastructure in the U.S. In addition, WM will provide overlay maps and data highlighting its marketing of three commonly recycled types of plastic — PET, HDPE, and polypropylene.  This data will show material flows between regions by polymer, and categories of current end market uses for these materials. WM will identify actions it believes will help address the gaps identified in the report — both possible company actions and broader recommendations.

One of the factors in low recycling rates are inefficient or outdated Materials Recovery Facilities (MRF), where collected recyclables are separated for processing. Outdated facilities can result in lower capture rates of recyclables. The company has agreed to disclose information on the number of its MRFs that are equipped with the latest processing equipment, as well as those that are slated for near-term upgrades that can improve recycling outputs and yields, and those that have not been upgraded.

The company will also provide an updated statement on its position on extended producer responsibility (EPR), a strategy that requires consumer goods producers to finance collection and recycling of their packaging, currently paid for by taxpayers. Trillium and As You Sow believe EPR policies are essential to provide adequate funding to collectors and processors to be able to take a range of actions needed to improve recycling rates.

As You Sow and Trillium have withdrawn their shareholder proposal in response to these commitments by the company.

“Less than 10 percent of plastic waste is recycled and the lack of export markets has put heavy strains on the domestic recycling market,” said Conrad MacKerron, senior vice president at As You Sow. “This report will provide deeper insight into plastic material flows once they leave consumers hands and should be an invaluable resource to stakeholders working to increase recycling rates.”

As You Sow believes more organized, concerted action is needed by producer brands, recyclers, processors, regulators, and advocacy groups to dramatically increase levels of recycling, both to capture the embedded value of these materials, as well as to provide feedstock for the recycled content many brands now promise to use. Without such action, more recyclable plastics will end up in landfills instead of being recycled.

“We are pleased to have been a driving force behind this new action from WM and we hope this report will provide a meaningful addition to the industry’s understanding of plastic recycling challenges in the U.S.,” said Allan Pearce, a shareholder advocate at Trillium.

To learn more about As You Sow’s work on ocean plastics, click here.

Originally posted in As you Sow.

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