Paperman: This PaperKaran makes sure nothing is wasted

Chennai’s Paperman, Mathew Jose, brings dignity to kabadiwalas even while giving homes and schools a way for their waste to be much more.

“Unless we see value in something, it is hard for us to treat it right,” says Mathew Jose, referring to the incessant debate on how to sustain responsible waste management in cities. We could label bins, provide colour coding, and come up with multiple options to make waste management convenient for the average household. Yet, it is only when waste gets converted to tangible value, and across the chain, will it lead to behavioural change.

“The Paperman” – Mathew Jose

“The Paperman”, as he is fondly called, has taken the axiom to a level that transcends sound-good philosophy. It is the core belief of the social enterprise he runs, that works with 120 kabadiwallas (ragpickers) on one side and communities – apartments, schools, colleges – on the other.

The spark to start an enterprise focused on recycling came to Mathew in early 2009, while he was working under the mentorship of MB Nirmal, Chennai’s renowned passionate advocate for waste management since the 80s. As head of Young ExNoRa (Excellent Novel Radical) that did a lot of programs in colleges, Mathew realised the potential of getting the common man involved in better waste management while integrating the tough informal economy.

The reach of Paperman today is impressive: 600 households at the frontend and 120 kabadiwallas at the backend, over 2,00,000 children in 100 schools in Chennai and more.

Paperman on the Amazing Indians show:

Waste management, a call away

Once a call comes in from a house with waste, it is collected by Paperman, sorted by women SHGs and then sold to the kabadiwallas who get a better market price for their aggregated waste. 20% of the proceeds are kept by Paperman. In the last 3 years of starting this initiative there has been a 5-6% income rise among the kabadiwallas in Chennai.

“This was something I felt should be done since 80% of all our household waste is recycled by kabadiwallas and millions of tons worth cores gets trashed every year. If we saw waste differently, all of the 15 lakh kabadiwalla in India today would be social entrepreneurs.”

Children pick up the waste baton

“We have taken our program to 100 schools and 2,00,000 students in Chennai, educating them about recycling and also laying emphasis on the role a paperman (scrap dealer) plays in recycling in India. We have launched sustainable recycling programs with 20 schools whereby we recycle their paper waste through local units. We also deliver it back as products to the schools,” says John.

The school effort has been hugely successful, leading to ownership and management by the students themselves. Schools have started a “Recycle Wall” where children are taught about the waste management and empowered to take ownership of waste management in schools. “The ideas for managing waste these school kids come up with is just brilliant. In fact in many cases they love the idea of selling waste for educating other children like themselves so much there is little to do once the seeds of this initiative are taught. They become entrepreneurs themselves and are managing the dry and wet waste function at schools.”

Of course, the journey to getting where he is was not easy. In the beginning many people closed doors and large organisations had too many bottlenecks when it came to selling their waste paper which led to delays. “But I feel great that there is a difference taking place. Changes in society are taking place and the kabadiwalla is getting his due, a lot more people are getting involved and consciousness is picking up now towards recycling and managing waste.”

Mathew Jose can be contacted on


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