A collaborative approach to transforming waste management in India's cities

Award-winning interdisciplinary research led by Fiona Marshall, Professor of Environment and Development, has helped to shape sustainable waste management policy and practice in India’s cities, with benefits for the environment and individual livelihoods.

People sorting through waste in IndiaWaste pickers in Ahmedabad. Photo: Pritpal Randhawa


Professor Marshall was the recipient of a Financial Times Responsible Business Education Award, in recognition of the impact of her team’s research on India’s urban waste crisis. The project was also part of the Business School’s successful REF 2021 submission, which highlighted our expertise in providing innovative solutions to global challenges.

Research into India’s urban waste crisis

The research was a response to the challenge of waste management in India, where an estimated 90% of waste is dumped in public spaces. Marshall and her team, which included local partners from Jawaharlal Nehru University and the Delhi-based NGO Toxics Link, analysed different perspectives on waste management challenges, practices and policy. This was one of a number of action research initiatives funded through the ESRC STEPS centre.

As well as shadowing wastepickers through their daily routine, the research team conducted focus groups, workshops and interviews with residents, NGOs, activists and government officials, and co-organised public events. This approach ensured that core beneficiaries of the research were engaged from the outset.

A key finding was that the current policy of centralised waste incineration has created problems for the environment, economy and society. “Through working with the various stakeholders, it became clear that large-scale incineration can simply displace health hazards across time, space and social groups, and exacerbate social justice concerns,” explains Professor Marshall.

Incineration, for example, increases toxic emissions and undermines the vital role of the country’s estimated 1.5 million informal wastepickers, who recycle waste and prevent around 932,000 tons of greenhouse gas emissions every year.

Mainstream approaches to urban waste management failed to recognise the complex flows of waste and related risks,” says Marshall. “As a result, environment, health and residents’ livelihoods were being threatened, and innovative solutions overlooked.

Changing policy and practice

Thanks to their deep understanding of the local context, the researchers were able to devise and promote decentralised waste management approaches that benefit the environment, economy and society.

Through sustained engagement and collaboration with India’s Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change, the team used their findings to inform and shape a key piece of Indian waste management legislation – the MSW Rules. The Rules recognise the central role of the informal sector and the importance of localised initiatives to handle waste.

The academics also worked with NGOs and wastepickers to facilitate unprecedented partnerships across the formal and informal sectors – providing security of livelihood for informal wastepickers, while also reducing pollution.

Professor Marshall explains how engagement with local communities was central to the project’s success: “We worked with people from some of the many excellent initiatives practising and promoting alternative waste management approaches,” she said.

These diverse local initiatives provided much of the inspiration for our recommendations, which in turn have contributed to changing policy perspectives and supported new waste management practices.”

More about the project

The project forms part of a broader programme of ongoing transdisciplinary action research which focuses on transformative innovations in urban and peri-urban contexts, and the potential to integrate green infrastructures (including urban and peri-urban agriculture) and an enhanced understanding of food-water-energy-environment interdependencies into more inclusive and environmentally sustainable urban development trajectories.

Read more about the Delhi waste management research in Pathways for Sustainable Urban Waste Management and Reduced Environmental Health Risks in India: Winners, Losers, and Alternatives to Waste to Energy in Delhi, published in Frontiers in Sustainable Cities.

Find out more about the working lives of India’s urban waste pickers and insights from the project in this Story from STEPS: Waste not, want not.