Integrating Garbage Recycling Activities into a Solid Waste Management System


Solid waste recycling and its related activities are informally very much a part of the solid waste management process in Karachi. These activities provide jobs to over 55,000 families involved in collecting, sorting, buying, selling and recycling waste for over 1,000 units. The annual turn over of the industry is well above Rs 1.2 billion.

A powerful nexus exists between the KMC solid waste management staff and the sorting and recycling activities. As a result of this nexus, millions of rupees exchange hands informally and the solid waste, instead of reaching the landfill sites is sorted within the city and transported to the recycling units. These units are also located within the city.

In the last 20 years, there have been numerous studies and proposals on and for a solid waste management system for Karachi. These studies have failed to recognise the central role that the recycling activities play in the solid waste drama in the city and as a result their proposals have remained unrealistic and difficult to implement.

This paper describes the process of sorting and recycling of waste and its relationship to larger management issues. It then presents practical ways of integrating the recycling sector into a solid waste management system. The proposals are the result of extensive stakeholder negotiations and discussions carried out by the Urban Resource Centre (URC) in Karachi; later with URC support by the Governor’s Task Force for the Improvement of Municipal Services; and then for a report prepared by Dr. Mansoor Ali (WEDC, UK) and Arif Hasan on the subject in 2001 with support from the Water and Sanitation Programme – South Asia (WSP-SA).


In the last 20 years, 35 studies have been prepared for Solid Waste Management for Karachi, many of them with foreign assistance. The recommendations of these studies have never been implemented fully. Even if they had been, they would not have solved Karachi’s solid waste management problem because none of them recognised the crucial role of the recycling industry, most of which is in the informal sector, in the disposal of solid waste in Karachi.

In 1991 the Urban Resource Centre (URC), a Karachi NGO, started to look at the relationships between the various formal and informal actors involved in the solid waste management process for Karachi. Its research ultimately focussed on the recycling industry as it emerged that it was a major player in this sector. Subsequently, Mansoor Ali, a Karachi engineer who had been working with the Orangi Pilot Project (OPP), did his MSc and PhD thesis on the subject and scientifically quantified the role of the recycling industry in solid waste management.

Karachi generates about 6,600 tons of solid waste every day. Eight hundred tons of this is removed at source by housewives and sold to about 15,000 kabaris who pick up the waste from people’s homes. This solid waste consists of glass, plastic, metal and paper. In addition, about 700 tons of recyclable waste is collected from the KMC neighbourhood garbage dumps or kutchra kundis as they are called. This activity is carried out by about 21,000 waste pickers, most of whom are young Afghan boys and who work in groups of 5 to 20. Each group is linked to a “contractor”. For their convenience, the waste pickers scatter the waste on to the public spaces around the kutchra kundis, creating large scale environmental pollution. The pickers collect paper, plastic, rags, bone and metal. They put these in big plastic bags and carry them to sorting places. If the sorting point is near the kutchra kundi, the pickers carry it there physically or on bicycles. If it is far, a donkey cart or a Suzuki pick-up is hired for this purpose. Most of the sorting places are located near the nallas, under bridges, in open spaces meant for parks and playgrounds, in abandoned public latrines and even at bus stop sheds. The contractor pays bhatta for the use of these spaces to functionaries of government departments who own the space or to neighbourhood toughs and to the police. KMC garbage collection crews and drivers do not lift garbage from the kutchra kundis regularly so as to help the pickers in their work. In return, the contractor pays the KMC drivers and crew between Rs 50 to 150 per day. In addition, the cost of the diesel saved by not making the journey from the kutchra kundis to the distant land fill sites, is also pocketed by the KMC staff1.

  1. Urban Resource Centre: Solid Waste Management in Karachi (unpublished survey), October 2000
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