Mathew Jose
Ashoka Fellow since 2015   |   India

Mathew Jose

Mathew is helping the recycling industry in India meet its supply gap by creating a new system of emotional rewards and intrinsic incentives that get citizens and children to separate and aggregate…
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This description of Mathew Jose's work was prepared when Mathew Jose was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 2015.


Mathew is helping the recycling industry in India meet its supply gap by creating a new system of emotional rewards and intrinsic incentives that get citizens and children to separate and aggregate waste.

The New Idea

Under the current recycling system in India, waste collectors, known as kabadiwallahs, travel door-to-door, offering households a small amount of money for their recyclable material. Unfortunately, the cash, environmental or moral arguments have been insufficient to motivate customers to recycle their waste. This limits the amount of waste material recovered and adds cost to the recycling industry, which already works on slim margins.

Mathew recognizes that while the monetary value of waste is insignificant at a small scale, it can increase in significance and function as an alternate currency when linked to other values. With this insight, he is aggregating and broadening this set of incentives to create a culture of recycling at the consumer level. For instance, Mathew capitalizes on the aspiration of urban middle-class households to give back to their community by creating an ‘emotional value’ for waste. His platform allows households to connect the value of their recyclable waste to impact they can create. The low sum of INR 200 (US $4) that a household may receive for selling their recyclables in a month is presented as a day’s nutrition for a child, or a week’s medication for an HIV+ individual. This provides much greater motivation for individuals to gather and sell their waste. Similarly, Mathew uses gamification to encourage schools and children to start ‘companies’ that aggregate the waste collected from their homes and donate the proceeds to a cause of their choice. As children launch campaigns, compete and celebrate their efforts in recycling, they build a culture of recycling and giving in their formative years.

Mathew connects this aggregated waste to the existing network of kabadiwallahs and streams them to the recycling industry, thereby creating an efficient value chain for recycling that increases income of kabadiwallahs and helps recycling industry reach its potential.

The Problem

India has industries to recycle 42 different kinds of waste material, like paper, plastic, glass and various types of metal. It is estimated that if all of India’s recycle-able waste were given for recycling to these industries, it would amount to an industry of INR 20,000 crore (US $4 billion).

The Indian Department of Industrial Policy and Promotion has estimated that recycling one tonne of waste paper would save 70% raw material, 60% coal, 43% energy and 70 % water, as compared to making paper from scratch. Similarly recycling one tonne of plastic saves approximately 17 trees, 2.5 barrels of oil, 4100 Kilowatt hours of electricity, 4 cubic meters of landfill and 31,780 litres of water. The recycling process also offers an opportunity for generation of additional income and employment. Finally, systematic collection and recycling of household materials will also significantly reduce the generation of municipal solid wastes that are currently being dumped without segregation into landfills.

In spite of the unarguable economic market opportunity and environmental benefits of recycling, India’s recycling industry is only functioning at half its capacity because it does not have access to enough waste material to recycle. For example, according to the 2012 report of the Indian Paper Manufacturers Association (IPMA), the present recovery and utilization of waste paper by paper mills in India is 3.0 million tonnes annually, which translates to a recovery of only 27% of the total paper and paperboard consumed. This recovery rate is very low when compared to developed countries such as Germany with 73%, Sweden with 69%, and Japan with 60%. Due to inadequate availability of indigenous waste paper, Indian mills rely heavily on imported waste paper to meet their demand for raw material. The import of waste paper has increased from USD $5.1 million in 1980 to $1 billion in 2011. India imports around 4.0 million tonnes of waste paper annually, but even with this the paper recycling industry is only functioning at 57% of its full capacity.

India already has a system of door-to-door recyclable waste collectors, kabadiwallahs. Kabadiwallahs go door-to-door to about 50 houses every day, but find that only eight to ten households have aggregated their recyclable waste to sell to them because the incentives for households is very low (they would only earn , US $ 1-2 for a months’ worth of newspapers). Aggregating waste for recycling is an inconvenience for people to store neatly in the smaller, nuclear dwellings of the urban middle class. CSO-led awareness campaigns that encourage citizens to recycle to reduce their carbon footprint by saving water and trees have failed in increasing recycling behavior because people cannot relate to virtual or metaphorical concepts like the “carbon footprint” that they cannot see, measure or understand. As a result, approximately 80% of the households throw their recyclables away with other solid waste which ultimately ends up in municipal solid waste dumping grounds. This door-to-door movement with low collections also creates great inefficiencies for the kabadiwallahs.

The Strategy

Mathew founded Paperman in 2010, to identify and remove barriers to recycling and build a culture of recycling in urban middle classes. His focus on the urban middle class is strategic in that it is identified as the highest waste-generating demographic in India, following industry.

To aggregate waste at scale and instill positive behavior at a formative age, Mathew saw opportunity in working with children in schools. To get the students excited about waste collection, Mathew encourages them to form a “waste management company,” elect a CEO, managers, and name their enterprise. This “company” of students is not only responsible for collecting all the recyclable waste from their own households, but also in motivating the children in the primary and high schools to collect and aggregate their waste. These roles and structures make students feel like responsible adults with a serious job, which incentivizes them to work hard at it.

Mathew also began to create a network of kabadiwallahs in the city to purchase the waste aggregated in the schools. In order to identify kabadiwallahs for his network, he ran a crowdsourcing campaign, asking young people to talk to any kabadiwallah they saw, inquire into the amount of waste they collected each day andfrom how many households. They were to take a picture of them as part of the kabadiwallah’s profile on Paperman’s website. The student who put up the maximum number of profiles was recognized and written about in the local newspaper.

Mathew connected the schools to their nearest kabadiwallah, who buys the waste aggregated by the student company once a month. This saves the kabadiwallah individual household trips, and the students earn INR 3000-4000 per month (around USD 50-70), thereby giving the recyclers a new line of business. By creating a program in which students organize their own school-based companies, he maintains the educational element; and he adds social relevance by having the schools use their earnings to sponsor the education of a less privileged student, usually a girl.

Mathew asked the schools to put up a 7 foot by 4 foot wall, which he calls the “Recycle Wall,” in public view. Here the students display the amount of waste they collected and the amount of money they donated through the money earned. This wall also includes pictures of the students spending time at the non-profit in order to provide motivation for parents and the larger student community to participate in the program at home.

Mathew further encourages this behavior of aggregating waste for recycling by publicizing the biggest collections to create models for best practices, gamifying companies at schools, and a number of other behavior change strategies. The various student companies from different schools meet every month to share and adopt successful strategies. For example, one student company used the advertising slogan “Every child, 2 newspapers, for 5 days”, and got the school management to mandate that every child brings two newspapers to school daily for five days, to meet their goal of INR 18,000 (around USD 300) in a month. They donated this money to the NGO, Nanhi Kali, and were able to send one girl to school for a year. Many other school companies adopted this simple formula, and in 2012, the schools Mathew worked with raised money enough to send 100 girls to school.

After two years, Mathew felt that the school ecosystem was ready to function independently, and able to continue churning out creative ideas to increase waste recycling independently. To open source this program in schools with minimum intervention from his end, Mathew is currently holding a competition amongst design students in the city college to create a “Recycle Wall in a Box,” which will be a do-it-yourself kit for schools to implement the recyclable waste aggregation program with their students, sold at under INR 1000 (USD 20).

In order to reach families that do not have a connection to schools in his system, Mathew has started working with households and companies as well. Realizing that a big barrier for households to aggregate their waste is how to store it without cluttering the house, Mathew designed a bag for households that has compartments for different kinds of waste. This bag can be zipped into a compact cube bag to make storing the waste neat and easy until it is ready to be collected on a monthly basis by the kabadiwallah. Mathew monitors the amount of waste each household provides to kabadiwallahs each month. If their recycling pattern shows a reduction, he provides them with information through flyers and email campaigns on what other items they can recycle.

Just like the schools, the households and companies also choose a non-profit to donate the money earned from selling their waste. Paperman, acts as the facilitator for the whole home collection process. The kabadiwallah pays Paperman, rather than the household, the money for the waste collected. Paperman deducts 20% for their own operational sustainability, and then donates the remaining 80% to the CSO chosen by the household or company. The kabadiwallahs also benefit from this scheme as their customer base grows, adding an estimated INR 5000 to their monthly income.

Mathew is simultaneously building a network of vetted and trusted CSOs that the schools, households and companies can donate to. The CSOs, in turn, ask their existing donor and supporter base to give their waste to Paperman kabadiwallahs. This creates a sustained source of income for the CSO while also growing Mathew’s customer base.

Over the last two years, Mathew has reached 200 schools, 500 households and 4 multi-national companies, through his network of 120 kabadiwallahs, and partnered with four CSOs. Mathew has raised INR 400,000 (US$ 8000) for these CSOs through his programs. The income of the kabadiwallahs have increased by INR 5000 (US$ 100) a month, which is a doubling of their income. While continuing to grow this network, Mathew is now creating an alternative crowd-funding platform for non-profits, where instead of donating money, citizens donate their waste to kabadiwallahs. The money from the sale of this waste will be donated to a CSO of their choosing from the website. With this platform Mathew is realizing his vision for creating an alternate economy of waste.

The Person

Mathew grew up in a family of entrepreneurs in the plywood business and was expected to join the family business. However, while studying some of India’s most successful businesses such as the Tata and Birla Corporations during his graduation, he noticed how these businesses were either exploiting people at the bottom of the pyramid or the environment. Disillusioned with conventional business, Mathew decided against business school. Instead he explored the social enterprise sector that sought to achieve triple bottom line impact. To learn more about the social entrepreneurial space, Mathew started working with Ashoka fellow, M. Nirmal, in his waste management organization, ExNora.

At ExNora, Mathew was part of global warming initiatives, waste management projects and awareness programs. However, the lack of measurable impact through such programs left him thinking. He understood why most people, including himself, did not think of climate change as a critical issue and why they didn’t change their lifestyles to more eco-friendly ones: the issue was too large and invisibled for them to relate to;they could not see the measurable impact of their actions.

During his work at ExNora, Mathew also got the opportunity to closely observe the daily routine of a kabadiwallah. He saw how the local paperman quietly goes about his job and makes a measurable impact in the society on a daily basis, by recycling 4 tonnes of waste every month. Mathew travelled around the city finding and profiling kabadiwallahs, calculating the carbon credits they had earned over their lifetime of work and publicly recognizing them as local heroes on his blog.

Seeing opportunity in working with them to build a culture of recycling, Mathew decided to start his own organization, Paperman, in 2010 at the age of 22 years, to get people excited about waste management by showing them a measurable impact of recycling their waste in a new way.

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