Informal plastic waste recycling firms: Impacts on livelihood and health

A sustainable framework is needed for a healthy and safe working environment in the informal plastic waste recycling sector in India
15 May 2023
0 mins read
Informal plastic waste recycling firms has increased significantly since the 1990s (Image: Andreas, Pixabay)
Informal plastic waste recycling firms has increased significantly since the 1990s (Image: Andreas, Pixabay)

A sizeable segment of the workforce in India relies on the informal sector as their main source of income. One such activity is waste management, which is carried out informally or is organised through associations and cooperatives. The informal garbage sector dominates waste collection and material recycling operations with four million people working in informal recycling in India.

The working environment in the unorganised or informal sector is risky and linked to a number of health and safety-related problems.

A recent paper by Md Sayed Hasan and Somnath Ghosal investigates the role of informal plastic waste recycling factories on workers' livelihoods in West Bengal, a prominent waste recycling centre. The paper ‘Informal plastic waste recycling firms in rural eastern India: Implications for livelihood and health’ assesses the prevalence of self-reported health disorders with multiple responses and their predictors for recycling plastic factory workers.

Since the 1990s, the number of informal plastic waste recycling firms has increased significantly in West Bengal's Malda district, particularly in the Kaliachak-I area. These businesses support the development of the rural workforce, economic growth, and the narrowing of the rural-urban economic gap. As a result, residents of this region frequently switch from farming to non-farming activities, which significantly improves their ability to support their living. Those undertaking these activities are known as recycling factory workers.

In more than 200 small and medium-sized recycling companies, the routinely collected materials are processed via various stages including colour sorting, cleaning, pre-processing, volume accumulation, and trade. These factories also feature an informal work environment, which has more serious effects on the health of the employees. 

The findings portray both the positive and negative implications of these factories. Nearly 78% of factory workers are faced with muscular pain. Further, statistical analysis indicate a significant positive relationship between the magnitude of workers' health disorders with increasing years of work experience and demographic attributes (p < 0.05 and p < 0.10).

Positive impact: Economic incentives and livelihood outcome

Based on the interviews, it is clear that this sector is limited to a specific segment of society. It gave the poor, less educated, semi-skilled population a unique opportunity to work and earn. The current study attempted to quantify the livelihood outcomes of recycling factory workers.

The study indicates an increase in mean-monthly income from traditional (agriculture) occupational strategies towards the current occupation. The factory workers can pay more for their children's education and better housing conditions, thus improving their physical, mental, and emotional well-being.

As much as these activities bring economic benefits to those involved, there is also a prevalence of human health risks associated with these activities. These health risks are often attributed to the nature of recyclable items collected and the process involved. It is also mentioned that poor health status is associated with a low-standard workplace, insufficient ventilation in the work shed, and improper hygiene for the workers. Hence, recycling factory workers are exposed to several major and minor health disorders, similar to those in other developing countries, as most work long hours with minimal protection.


  • The workers should be provided personal protective equipment like gloves, face masks, and proper shoes. At the same time, safety measures like noise control, updated machinery, safe work method training and proper hygiene systems should be provided.
  • Systematic medical examinations of labour, visit to primary health care clinics, and identification of occupational variables associated with work-causing illness can aid in disease prevention.
  • There is a need to make a strategy to mitigate gender-preferred biases and discrimination of wages and provide good job opportunities for sustaining better livelihoods.
  • Most importantly, the government and local policymakers must provide a sustainable framework to maintain a healthy and safe working environment in every informal or unorganised workplace.

This study will be helpful for local policymakers, epidemiologists and the health inspection sector to make effective and sustainable health improvement interventions to combat similar issues.

The full paper can be read here

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