June 2022

Recycled plastic buttons, a global brand and the role of Bengaluru’s informal waste pickers

Buttons partly made from plastic waste, collected by informal waste pickers in Bengaluru with whom Saamuhika Shakti works, are now featured on H&M garments made in India and sold worldwide. These buttons are traceable down to the source of the waste along with names of the workers, social security, salaries, and working conditions at the aggregation center. 

With the fashion and textile industry working to shift business models from linear to circular, sustainable materials are in demand, and recycled plastic plays a vital part in creating a regenerative industry.  As circular economy gains momentum, the people at the heart of the action - in this case the informal waste pickers -  should also benefit from the actions being taken. We call this inclusive circularity. 

Here’s how Bengaluru’s informal waste pickers are at the heart of this, a project that benefits their community by creating jobs and income opportunities while also recognizing the value of the work they do. 

Informal waste pickers rank among the lowest in the social hierarchy in Bengaluru. They are fundamental to the city’s waste management system, yet they live in poverty, suffer harassment, and have little linkage to governmental institutions.

The H&M Foundation initiated and funds Saamuhika Shakti, a collective impact initiative aiming to equip waste pickers to lift themselves out of poverty through a holistic ecosystem of organisations. 

Seven implementing partners and a backbone organisation are working together to support the waste picker community in various aspects - that the waste pickers themselves have identified - such as safe working conditions, access to social services and good quality education, water and sanitation, up-skilling or access to alternative jobs, innovations in waste management streams that are inclusive and provide livelihoods to the waste pickers, a shift in the way the population think about waste pickers, as well as increasing economic opportunities. 

The 4-year program (2020-2023) is funded by H&M Foundation with more than USD 11 million and aims to address the gaps in the system that keep waste pickers in poverty. Two years in the making, Saamuhika Shakti is already impacting around 20,000 waste pickers including their families, and has caught the attention of others. 

H&M Group has now become a business partner with the social enterprise Hasiru Dala Innovations -  a sister organisation of Saamuhika Shakti partner Hasiru Dala - placing orders for millions of buttons partly made from recycled PET bottles (rPET) sourced by waste pickers in Bengaluru. This has extended the social impact of Saamuhika Shakti. It is a stand-alone business partnership that is not subsidised by the funds from the non-profit H&M Foundation. 

The buttons on H&M garments are partly made from recycled PET collected primarily by informal waste pickers in Bengaluru, who segregate the waste and sell it to Hasiru Dala Innovations. The PET waste is then flaked and washed, and provided to two of H&M Group’s button suppliers in India — turning the waste into buttons featured on garments sold worldwide. 

These specific buttons are made with 30% post-consumer waste, and the plan is to constantly increase the amount of recycled content. At present, the post-consumer PET comes from Bengaluru as the collection from the city is enough to cater to the demand.

Hasiru Dala Innovations (HDI) are World Fair Trade Organization guaranteed, and the buttons are traceable down to the source of the rPET, names of the workers, social security, above minimum wage salaries, and working conditions at the collection center. 

HDI employs around 120 people,  most of whom are former waste pickers. Employees on the payroll at HDI aggregation center are paid more than minimum wages and get ESI (state health insurance) and PF (retirement benefits) coverage. HDI regularly conducts training for the waste pickers on health and safety, prevention of sexual harassment, ethics and compliance and on how to run their business. 

With this development, waste pickers have the potential to become key players in a global circular system – contributing to the health and state of our planet, lifting themselves out of poverty and receiving recognition as the changemakers they truly are.

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