By Sonia Mathur

In the UK around 550 kilograms of waste is generated per person every year, and 40% of that is recycled. In India, an estimated half a kilogram of waste is generated per person and a quarter of it is recycled.

India is a country where very little gets wasted. But the sheer size of the population means even that little waste adds up to huge numbers.

Across the country there is no formal garbage collection and so the way recycling is carried out may offer alternatives for developed countries such as the UK.

It’s a ‘carrot’ approach by small traders, who trade in rubbish rather than any government ‘stick’ threatening fines that drives the recycling effort.

In the Indian capital of Delhi, for example, only five per cent of homes have a formal system of garbage removal. And yet around 59% of the city’s refuse is recycled, providing a livelihood for more than 150,000 people.

I grew up in Delhi and when I was young my parents only bought us new clothes twice a year. For the most parts we wore ‘hand-me-downs’ from our older cousins. There was no shame in that – it was the done thing.

And those clothes which we couldn’t hand down were exchanged for household dishes and steel utensils from the Bartanwallah – a street vendor who would roam around with bundles of clothes and a bundle of brand new dishes, exchanging one for another. Most of our old clothes were ‘bartered’ for new frying pans.

These days, with cheaper clothes (and cookware), big cities have fewer Bartanwallahs than before. But they’re still plying their trade in smaller towns where the majority of the Indian population live.

By making it a trade from which the buyer and seller both stand to gain, recycling becomes something most people do willingly. If, for example, you were getting paid for your stack of old newspapers and magazines, you’d be less likely to sneak it in the black bin bag.

Enter the Raddiwallah. He or she too roams streets through residential areas, especially on weekends, offering to buy old papers and magazines. It’s a few pence rather than any big amount, but if a week’s worth of newspapers and magazines get you something in return, why would you say no? Most households have a dedicated raddi spot, where the newspapers are piled in a clean dry place ready to be sold on to the Raddiwallahs.

The Raddiwallah in turn sells this to companies who recycle old papers to make bags etc. One major fashion outlet – Fab India – often uses these ‘old-newspaper bags’ and so fashion conscious Delhiites may well end up with their new clothes in a bag made from a newspaper they read a few weeks earlier.

And for all your other household junk, there’s always the Kabadiwallah. Again buying things according to their weight and condition, the Kabadiwallah picks up old toasters, burnt out lamps, broken chairs, plastic flowers you name it. These are then sold on to companies who can use the raw materials to make something else.

For a country with a large but poor population making the best of everything is an obvious way to ensure sustainable living. But there is something deeper at play here. It’s not organised or regulated – but it is trading. They’re not making millions – but all these Raddiwallahs, Kabadiwallahs and Bartanwallahs are entrepreneurs.

If, instead of threatening to fine those who don’t recycle, councils paid a small amount for a kilo of newspapers, more people might willingly recycle.

Of course, lack of regulation means the Indian people who trade in rubbish are some of the poorest in the country. The number of children working in this sector is huge and there is no health or safety consideration for anyone.

But recently, there have been attempts to improve the working conditions for those in this sector, private businesses are attempting to introduce some organisation.

Paperman, a business based on the model of the Raddiwallahs, is thriving and is providing proper care and employment to the rag pickers and refuse collectors of Chennai (formerly Madras).

“We haven’t applied for grants from the government, because we wanted to make this business model sustainable,” says Mathew Jose, who set up Paperman in July 2010.

“We know now that it works and we are looking to expand to other parts of India. We are open to collaborations with foreign companies who want to work with us.

“Procuring waste from us is another opportunity for foreign businesses which we are considering. If there are businesses who want to source raw, recyclable materials from India, that would be something we would look at right now.”

The heady days of consumerism may be a thing of the past. But the future can only be truly sustainable if every part of the recycling chain wants to participate – willingly.