PROTOPRINT: Socio-economic Transformation by Empowering Informal Waste Pickers to Produce 3D Printing Filaments in Pune

India’s rapid economic development has lifted large shares of its population out of poverty and propelled them into a growing middle class. However, it has also led to a growing flood of waste, especially plastic waste. Major parts of the downstream processes of plastic waste management in India and about 96 percent of its recycling are in the hands of informally operating micro, small and medium-sized enterprises (MSMEs). Waste collection is predominantly done by female waste pickers who earn their living by selling waste to scrap dealers (so-called Kabadiwallas). However, because of their marginalised position and lack of negotiating power, they are usually not adequately compensated and stay beneath the poverty line. It is widely accepted that the transformation of the plastic sector towards circularity will rely largely on the integration of informal waste pickers into formal value chains by empowering their position while preserving or ideally improving their livelihoods.

In collaboration with the National Chemical Laboratory (NCL) and the waste picker cooperative SWaCH, the Social Seva Initiatives (SSI) developed an innovative technology that processes HDPE (high-density polyethylene) into high-value marketable products, recycling HDPE into 3D printing filament. The endeavour is known as the Protoprint™ Initiative. The aim is to utilize this technology to enable waste pickers collecting such HDPE to become profitable micro-entrepreneurs within the solid waste management industry. The process enhances the value of plastic waste considerably by recycling it into a higher-value product. Under the PROTOPRINT project, the European Union’s SWITCH-Asia Programme funds the setup of several such production facilities to produce 3D printing filaments using recycled HDPE waste. The project seeks to set up a sustainable, replicable and scalable business model that will eventually benefit a larger number of waste pickers. The aim of the project is to empower women by reskilling waste pickers, giving them access to sustainably improved livelihoods through this new technology.

adelphi will undertake research on market access points in the form of country profiles pointing out potential buyers for the recycled 3D printing filament.