COVID’s Hidden Frontline in Indonesia

By: Ella Flaye, Regional Director – Asia

2020 has been an extraordinary year for all us – a year which feels like the world paused whilst it grapples with a global pandemic and the unknown. For many of us that means retreating back to the safety of our homes and waiting for the world to reopen, but for some that isn’t an option. For essential workers, including waste workers, their work must continue. Throughout our work in Indonesia, one thing is clear: waste workers are a hidden frontline to our COVID-19 pandemic. 

Waste workers in developing economies like Indonesia are often from highly marginalised social groups, where every day’s wage counts. Throughout Indonesia’s pandemic, we saw waste workers on the streets of the capital handling waste with their bare hands, no masks or goggles to be seen and no one to support them. Society takes little time to appreciate what they do for us and how they keep our homes and streets clean, but without them there would be chaos and widespread disease, not to mention the irreversible degradation to our environment. 

This is where we at Rethinking Recycling saw an opportunity to support the communities we work with by supporting and protecting their waste workers through these difficult times. With our partners, we rallied to provide head to toe protection, health and safety guidance and even the provision of meals to waste workers and their families hit hard by the crisis. 

During the height of the crisis this meant all workers at our pilot sites, as well as other neighboring sites, had ample supplies of helmets, goggles, masks, overalls and boots, and access to running water, soap and hand sanitizer to keep them protected every day.

Providing essential protection & economic relief for Waste Workers

At Rethinking Recycling we have a deep passion for education and capability building so we grasped this opportunity to deliver trainings and widely publicize materials to ensure everyone understood the importance of PPE, sanitation and social distancing for waste workers. Our guidance and training materials were picked up by our partners at the ministries of the environment, public works and villages and disseminated to over 70,000 villages across Indonesia. 

COVID-19 decimated Bali’s economy leaving many families, including waste workers, without a means to put food on the table. We provided over 4 thousand meals to waste workers, waste pickers and their families during the first lockdown in an attempt to make their lives just a little bit easier through those dark days. Through the Rethinking Recycling program we brought all wages up to minimum wage – a near 200% increase and we ensured access to healthcare and provided on the ground training and coaching. 

Our programs are not successful unless our workers are respected and proud of their work!

Establishing the Rethinking Recycling Academy

In September 2020 we launched our Rethinking Recycling Academy in Denpasar Bali. The program empowers communities with all the skills and tools they need to run a successful recycling program including access to funding, operational and financial management and very importantly worker’s wellbeing. As for many others, COVID has impacted our program – what was once destined to be an interactive on the ground program has evolved into a highly digitized remote learning academy through an ed-tech partnership with Quipper. Through training our first Academy cohort we hope to improve the livelihoods and create good green jobs for over 300 workers across Denpasar. Every waste worker counts. 

Together we can create a resilient, sustainable waste management ecosystem in Bali and beyond.

Building A New Path Forward in 2020 For Impact in Argentina

By: Cristina Domecq, Senior Associate, Behavior Change

Like so many nonprofits around the world, we began 2020 with big plans and high hopes for how we would reshape environmental and social systems across the world. As we know all too well now, 2020 would instead lay a path with seemingly insurmountable obstacles.

Our 2020 focus: Expanding Rethinking Recycling across Buenos Aires

Our Rethinking Recycling program in Buenos Aires’ Barrio 31, locally known as ‘ATR – A Todo Reciclaje’, had closed 2019 with a proven model for sustainable recycling programs in informal settlements. Over the course of one year, we had taken the new recycling service to the doorsteps of more than 20 thousand people, reaching participation rates of over 30% and diverting more than 120 tons of recyclables and organics. We built a community-run sorting center from scratch and created the first residential organics collection service in the city of Buenos Aires. As we leaped into January 2020, our team of community leaders, waste workers and sustainability experts were focused on expanding the ‘A Todo Reciclaje’ program to more than 40,000 people across the entire Barrio 31 neighborhood.

With a playbook for sustainable waste management in informal settlements through our Barrio 31 work, our team was also preparing to prove our model in a new context: in the mid-sized city of Olavarría. With sprawling parks and a lolling river valley in Buenos Aires Province, Olavarría notably has a long heritage as the cement industry capital of the region with engaged citizens and robust public services. In this new city and alongside the municipal government as partners, we made plans to launch our new program – to transform the end-to-end municipal waste system to optimize the recovery of recyclable and compostable materials back into productive use.

A new path forward: Our pivot in the pandemic

We were on the right track. And then our lives stopped, our programs stopped. However, our will to rethink the status quo and collaborate for a better world remained unstoppable.

After being pushed off the tracks like many others during the COVID-19 crisis, we started building a new path.

Our Argentina team focused on two goals:

  • First, collaborate with our existing partner, the city of Buenos Aires government, to help the community in Barrio 31 overcome the escalating crisis by repurposing our platform to provide COVID response;
  • Second, re-launch our Barrio 31 recycling programs safely, as soon as possible.

Barrio 31 COVID Response

Like many informal settlements around the world, Coronavirus precautions like social distancing and stay-at-home quarantining are nearly impossible in Barrio 31: families live side-by-side in cramped apartments, and count on daily work for food. In April and May, as the rest of the city of Buenos Aires sheltered in place and held COVID at bay, Barrio 31 and the city’s other slums made up nearly 50% of infected cases across the city.

Our dynamic, community-based model was able to shift rapidly to provide support to those who need it most, when they need it most. Given the immediate need to support Barrio 31’s community, we re-purposed our reach in the community to quickly deploy food, PPE, and health and safety training to essential workers and vulnerable communities alongside our government partner, the Secretariat for Social and Urban Integration (SISU)

During the early days of Buenos Aires’ shelter in place policy, we continued to digitally stand by the side of waste workers, who, despite fear and uncertainty, were as committed as ever to keeping the streets clean and their neighbors safe. While the rest of the city was on lockdown Barrio 31’s waste management services continued. We leveraged the program’s reach to share messages with Barrio 31’s neighbors on how to safely manage their waste, while also virtually training more than 400 waste workers in the Barrio 31 community on COVID-19 prevention measures. This training methodology seemed unthinkable before Covid but has proven safe and efficient, and will represent a scaling method we will continue to use after the pandemic.

The digital support and tools we provided allowed us to maintain a relationship that we had worked hard to build, providing both immediate COVID care and response, while enabling a smooth relaunch of the program later in September of 2020 as if it had never stopped.

Relaunching our program in Barrio 31

Neighbors and waste-workers in Barrio 31 had stopped recycling for over half a year and we needed to come back strong in order to remind them how relevant their actions were both for sustainability and the community’s wellbeing. First, we adapted the whole recycling journey and sorting operations making sure we complied with all COVID-19 prevention measures and led reinforcement and motivation sessions with over 200 waste workers. Then, we developed a campaign that included digital communications, posters on the streets and door to door communications issuing the invitation to “get re-hooked with saving the planet” to the homes and shops of Barrio 31.

Today, we are back on track, safely expanding the program to new areas of Barrio 31. We have incorporated three more cooperatives to A Todo Reciclaje (ATR), which means that 1,500 more households and over six thousand more people have access to three stream waste collection. Meanwhile, the ATR program has sparked the interest of governments, influencers and organizations, that, despite the situation, or maybe because of it, have recognized in ATR the potential to transform communities and improve recycling.

Expansion to Olavarría

The Olavarría program, named “GIRO” (which stands for Olavarría Integrated Waste Management in Spanish), is a 3-year program that kicked off in August 2020 to roll-out a recycling program across the entire city alongside the municipal government, residents and waste workers. Against a challenging backdrop of working with a globally dispersed team and social distancing protocols, the team managed to find creative ways to conduct community research to better understand residents’ waste experience and barriers to recycling and is now designing tailored solutions, which will be piloted in various neighborhoods starting in March 2021.

Looking ahead to 2021: Reimagining what’s possible

Doing a retrospection of what we have lived this past year, we can say that, despite all the difficult and uncertain moments, we’ve grown stronger.

The whole organization has made a huge effort to support each other and remain connected inside and outside the limits of Rethinking Recycling. We have had our ups and downs, but we exit 2020 excited with our old and new partnerships and friendships, thirsty for new adventures to face together.

We have been forced to rethink – and redesign, re-plan, re-challenge – who we are and what we do, and we feel more prepared than ever for whatever 2021 holds.

Breakthrough behavior change: lessons from Civic Response Team in India

By Shannon Bouton and Cynthia Shih

Sometimes modest adjustments to everyday habits can make an enormous difference. For COVID-19, wearing a mask, washing hands, and social distancing are our best hope of containing the pandemic. Condom use has been one of the most effective tools in reducing HIV transmission. In recycling, proper separation of waste materials at home preserves the value of those materials, enabling the entire recycling industry to function.

But lasting behavior change is also very hard to achieve, and most efforts fall far short of their goals. Developing a new habit always competes with other priorities, and often existing societal norms, environmental cues, and personal senses of identity serve as powerful motivators against change. In difficult socioeconomic contexts, where people face challenges meeting their basic daily needs like food, clean water, or physical safety, behavior change may be an even tougher ask.   

In the past, many NGOs took behavior change approaches from high-income countries and tried to apply them wholesale to middle- and low-income countries. Increasingly, however, organizations in emerging economies are developing behavior change strategies tailored to the people and communities they serve, achieving impressive results with a fraction of the funding and resources that wealthier countries spend on similar efforts. Earlier this year, countries such as Ghana and Vietnam emerged as global case studies in effective containment of COVID-19, using novel techniques such as drones to transport test samples from hard-to-reach areas, and crowd-sourcing “event-based” surveillance to focus contact tracing efforts. Such examples have much to teach the global community about how to effectively deploy behavior change programs and tools, especially in challenging socioeconomic contexts.

When we launched Rethinking Recycling in early 2018, we set out to explore and learn from community-driven behavior change programs around the globe. One exceptional organization we found was Civic Response Team (CRT) in India, part of a broader social impact firm that includes the Centre for Applied Research and People’s Engagement (CARPE) and EcoSattva Environmental Solutions. CRT has achieved durable changes in recycling behaviors in many municipalities (urban local bodies, or ULBs) across Maharashtra state. The insights CRT has shared about its approach have deeply informed Rethinking Recycling’s behavior change programs in Buenos Aires, Argentina and Bali, Indonesia. And we believe CRT’s approach holds important lessons for anyone looking to implement effective, rapid behavior change at scale for social impact.

Emphasizing motivation over information for more effective behavior change

Natasha Zarine and Gauri Mirashi, founders of CRT, on field in the early days of their pilot project

Like Rethinking Recycling, CRT’s aim is to increase recycling rates in local communities to divert as much waste from landfills (or worse, illegal dumping sites) as possible. For the economics of recycling to work, people need to separate out recyclable waste at home to keep it clean and preserve its value. Unfortunately, this is where most recycling systems struggle most; in 2018 China, the world’s largest recycling economy, stopped importing waste because contamination rates were too high. The culprits were primarily recycling programs in North America and Europe, where many cities only achieve 30-40% (or lower) of households correctly separating their waste, despite decades of education and awareness campaigns.

In India, CRT has reported getting 80% of households to separate waste correctly into wet and dry categories within two weeks of launching in a given community, and to 95% within the next two weeks. And according to CRT’s data monitoring, these results have also held across demographics and over time.

What is the secret of CRT’s success? We observed that CRT has shifted the focus from information to motivation: putting people’s personal experience of being part of a recycling effort at the heart of every aspect of the program. The following examples illustrate how CRT has embedded this motivation-above-all principle in every aspect of its programs: from the “why” to the “how” and the “who” of community waste management.

1) Create a compelling “why”: invest in activating residents’ emotional commitment to recycling.  

A resident shows off her correctly separated waste: dry recyclables and wet organic matter

Many recycling programs incorrectly assume that building awareness and providing information is enough to change behavior. In fact, residents who need to start separating waste at home have many reasons not to adopt this new habit, even if they are aware and understand what’s being asked of them. And while penalties for non-compliance like fines may work in some other parts of the world, these kinds of negative incentives are not feasible in India where CRT works. “The only way to engage with residents is to make them feel a sense of ownership,” explain CRT co-founders Natasha Zarine and Gauri Mirashi.

CRT’s insight is that while some barriers to behavior change are practical (for example, insufficient space within the home), the most important factor is social. When people sense a critical mass of buy-in for a new behavior in the community, and that adopting that behavior will be good for their social identity, they find creative ways to overcome other obstacles.

CRT’s insight: the most important factor in behavior change is social. When people sense that adopting a behavior will be good for their social identity, they find creative ways to overcome other obstacles

With this in mind, CRT works with each community and its governing body to ensure its behavior change campaigns resonate emotionally with locals and create a sense of shared commitment. Since recycling is often a “hidden” behavior that people perform in the privacy of their homes, CRT brings recycling into public spaces and widely consumed media: for example, by tapping college and high school students to stage high-energy rallies and flash mobs. Catchy local phrases reinforce the pro-recycling message and make recycling a part of daily life, and are featured at local events and festivities, even jingles on local radio and mobile ringtones. Many of these efforts are aimed at young people, who are still forming the habits that they will carry throughout life, to help foster a positive and inspiring identity around recycling.

Through repeated implementation across many municipalities, CRT has also developed pattern recognition for what needs to be tailored to each community and what can be replicated wholesale from elsewhere. In one city renowned for its mango production, for example, CRT made the program mascot a mango dancing to a catchy recycling song, set to the tune of a Bollywood hit. But some elements can be used again and again across an entire region, saving valuable time and resources. For example, CRT uses a hand symbol and catchphrase (“taka-tak”) as universal shorthand for its recycling program, after finding they were memorable and quickly adopted by each new community without further customization.

2) Bring the “how” to life: use hands-on recycling demonstrations and ongoing cues through collection service.

Municipal staff and CRT lead an in-street education event for residents

Once people are inspired to adopt a new behavior, they need first-hand knowledge and supportive cues to put it into practice. For recycling, this means providing practical education on how to separate waste at home – and, just as importantly, integrating this behavior change with the waste collection service itself. 

To that end, when CRT helps launch a municipality’s recycling program, it works with waste collectors to host street events along their collection routes. These include live demonstrations of how to separate household waste into the appropriate categories, using actual waste that people bring out from their homes. Through this hands-on learning experience, recycling goes from an abstract concept to a tactile experience, something people can easily picture themselves incorporating into their daily routines.

After initial launch, the design of the collection service reinforces the behavior change. Here the emerging-economy setting plays to CRT’s advantage. In most higher-income countries, recycling programs rely on standardized, different colored bins to prompt residents to keep waste separated, with mixed results and at high equipment cost. In Maharashtra, most households have someone at home throughout the day, and residents bring their waste out to the collector for pickup. This creates a regular human touchpoint as they work to build a new habit; each collection stop provides an opportunity for residents to ask questions and get helpful tips on how to separate waste correctly, thus creating a positive feedback loop that sustains compliance over time.

Waste collectors host street events along their collection routes, including live demonstrations using actual waste that people bring out from their homes. Recycling goes from an abstract concept to a tactile experience

Waste workers themselves become more motivated through these hands-on education activities for residents, since they vividly illustrate the importance of their own work and how it connects them to real people in the community. According to sanitation supervisors who have worked with CRT, after these community education efforts, waste collection workers were significantly more engaged in their work, and 81% reported better relations with residents. 

3) Highlight the “who”: make every waste worker a recycling ambassador.

Waste workers take a tea break

CRT recognized early on that local waste management staff are the face of the recycling effort, and therefore critical to building credibility and fostering behavior change in the community. Waste collectors who visibly keep waste clean and separated are sending a clear signal to residents: when you make the effort to recycle correctly, the sanitation department upholds its end of the bargain. Workers who can speak knowledgeably about which kinds of waste go where, and educate residents on mistakes they observe when picking up waste, are serving two purposes: they improve recycling behaviors and the value of recovered materials, and they signal that someone is paying attention to what each household is doing, reinforcing the message that everyday behaviors matter.

Workers who can speak knowledgeably and educate residents are serving two purposes: they improve the value of recovered materials, and they reinforce the message that everyday behaviors matter

When working with waste management staff, CRT goes well beyond traditional capacity building. Its deep investment in worker capabilities includes training in leadership skills, public speaking, team building and problem solving, design thinking, and techniques for community partnership building and resident engagement. This holistic curriculum empowers workers to become respected and skilled change agents in the community, and to find their own creative solutions to challenges and setbacks throughout implementation of the recycling program. After CRT hands off the program to municipalities, they continue to perform well in the national Swachh Survekshan annual assessment of cleanliness and sanitation. 

CRT also fosters a motivating work environment for waste workers. One example is the “lucky draw.” In one municipality, after an initially successful launch, the volume of dry recyclables like paper, plastic, and glass coming into the sorting facility began dropping. As an experiment, the CRT team introduced a “lucky draw” incentive system, where individual waste workers could earn chances to win valuable prizes like cookware and bed linens by improving residents’ waste separation in their collection zones. (Through trial and error, CRT found that a randomized “lucky draw” among high performers works better than a straight “top performers” award, which incentivizes workers to question the fairness or accuracy of the ranking.) More dry recyclables began coming in on municipal collection vehicles again – and the incentive program served the dual purpose of improving the municipal staff’s relations with informal waste pickers, who worked at the sorting facility and were able to recover and sell more recyclables. 

Together, such efforts have resulted in waste workers in CRT’s programs reporting a 94% uptick in better understanding of their roles and 75% increase in their ability to problem-solve. In Rethinking Recycling’s programs in Indonesia and Argentina, we have also invested in deep training and performance-based incentives for our partners in the recycling workforce.

A template for broader social impact

As CRT’s methodology shows, focusing on motivation – in awareness campaigns, designing collection service and how-to education, and building worker capabilities – can yield dramatic results for recycling outcomes. And it disproves the often-held assumption that people won’t adopt recycling behaviors in low-income countries because they have “bigger things to worry about.” In fact, when provided with low-cost supports and reinforcing mechanisms, communities and workers in emerging economies can significantly outperform those in wealthier countries when it comes to forming good recycling habits.

Recycling is also emblematic of behavior change challenges in social impact more generally. Separating waste at home is a habit that requires consistent, ongoing practice, with benefits that are largely invisible to the person changing behavior, and which competes with many other urgent priorities. Just as organizations working on public health issues like HIV, vaccination, and teen pregnancy have contributed a great deal to our knowledge about effective behavior change globally, environmental sustainability organizations like CRT are bringing new insights that have broad applicability. 

What other issues have invisible behaviors that could be modeled more publicly? What other habits are tied to a service with regular touchpoints? Where else could we invest more deeply in front-line workers?

What other issues have “invisible” behaviors that could be modeled and celebrated more publicly, in locally meaningful ways? What other necessary habits are tied to a service with regular touchpoints, that could be used for hands-on demonstrations and reinforcing feedback? Where else could we invest more deeply in elevating front-line workers to become respected ambassadors of the cause, who are rewarded and recognized for their successes?

The Civic Response Team, The Center for Applied Research and People’s Engagement & EcoSattva Environmental Solutions Pvt Ltd. are sister organizations that provide evidence driven systemic solutions to pervasive civic challenges with multiple government, industry, community partners. For more information, visit or