Ideas to better waste pickers' lives

Re-imagining waste, hackathon unleashes innovative solutions

Ideas to better waste pickers' lives

Low-cost solar reflectors from waste aluminium foils; a multi-modal tactile sensing robotic arm to segregate waste; a smart cart that climbs stairs to ease collection; apparel for waste pickers that guarantees safety and hygiene. After a gruelling 48-hour hacking session, innovation won hands down at the Waste Hackathon, a unique synergy of ideas, functionality and design.

‘Re-imagine waste, hacking for a clean nation.’ The tagline of the Deccan Herald-partnered event said it all. The hackathon was jointly organised by Waste Impact, Centre for Product Design and Manufacturing and Centre for Infrastructure, Sustainable Transport and Urban Planning (CiSTUP), IISc. Deccan Herald was the media partner. Fresh from visits to garbage blackspots, dry waste collection centres, plastic and e-waste recycling facilities, the 147 hackers had seen the problem, first-hand. Working in tandem with 36 waste pickers, they brainstormed, toyed with solutions and sourced material for prototypes. On Sunday, they had much to show, the audience had much to learn as the hackathon matured to the product display stage.

Solar reflector 
The solar reflector was clearly one dramatic showpiece of what two days of social hacking could do. Using 2-micron-thick Kurkure aluminium foils, the hackers had developed a flat plate reflector and semi-circular reflector, generating heat that raised steam vapours from a water bottle. The video evidence was proof enough.
 For Eramma, a waste picker from Ramanagaram, all this made sense. She had collaborated with the hackers’ team to devise something useful from the 30 kg of Kurkure packets collected every day. Time was now just ripe for the multi-modal tactile sensing robotic arm to make a grand entry. Studying segregation problems at e-Parisara, the team had stumbled upon a blind worker who could separate the e-waste by touch. That triggered the ‘tactile’ idea in the hackers’ brains. Feeding a robotic arm with sensory capabilities of force, vibration, temperature and metal identification, they duplicated what the actual fingers could do. 

Robotic arm 
The team leader explained how the arm could be customised to identify even the colour of the waste material. It could even estimate the radius of curvature of a contacted object. Initially worn as a glove, the arm could empower the waste pickers. But wouldn’t it take away jobs? That jury query stumped them, but they weren’t sure.

Waste picker Saubhadra had to carry 50 kg of household rejects, negotiating several steps daily to reach apartment blocks. Her team had to design a cart that eased her journey up and down. A smart cart was the hackers’ response. Its cascading wheels could tackle the vertical challenge.

Smart uniform
Team Swachch Sahayak shifted the focus right back to the waste picker, his/her identity. A fully functional, smart and comfortable uniform was this team’s priority. In Nazeera, the hackers found a model to showcase that apparel, complete with protective covering against dust, chemicals and stench. Sourced from material as diverse as sharklet film, poly-cotton and lotus wax, the dress and gloves looked chic, giving every worker a smart identity. 

It was a deliberate attempt to boost their social stature. For long, the waste pickers had gone to work with bare hands, nighties and T-shirts that gathered dust and dirt. The smart apparel and a slew of mobile apps developed by the hackers gave them hope that their lives could be bettered with a hyper, tech-boost.  

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