india-dharavi-ragpickersFor the past three decades, there has been a transformation of the recycling psyches that has been experienced across the globe. New consumerism heaped atop rapid urbanisation and population growth has left municipalities with overarching concerns regarding waste management. For this reason, recycling has become a worldwide multi-billion dollar industry and is set to increase as our consumer culture continues to accelerate.

In the West, we recycle because of our understanding that in doing so, it is essential for conserving the planet’s resources. However, for some of the poorest people in the developing world, recycling often isn’t a choice, but a necessity of life.

Sprawling over 550 acres of land in the heart of India’s third largest city, Dharavi’s maze of dilapidated shacks and narrow, odorous alleyways is home to more than one million people. In this small area of Mumbai’s sprawling slum, hidden amid the warren of ramshackle huts and squalid open sewers are an estimated 15,000 single room factories, employing around a quarter of a million people and turning over a staggering £700 million ($US 1 billion) each year. Despite the poverty, Dharavi has been described by the UK’s Observer as “one of the most inspiring economic models in Asia”. And all from one process: Recycling. It’s difficult to find something here that is not recyclable.

Could it be that these informal, shanty room enterprises are actually leading the city’s green movement?

Dharavi: A Recycling Miracle

Dharavi, a place filled with dirt, filth and sewerage and what may be see as an eyesore for most of the city’s residents is also a recycling marvel. Labelled as the recycling centre of India, Dharavi is one of Asia’s largest slums and is situated at the heart of India’s financial capital.

The country has witnessed a substantial growth in the consumption of plastics and an ever increased production of plastic waste which has become an overwhelming environmental, health and aesthetic hazard for many urban areas. Mumbai alone generates almost 7,025 tons of waste on a daily basis and for this reason Dharavi remains a land of recycling opportunity for many rural Indians.

In India, the people who make their living by recycling waste are known as “ragpickers” and Mumbai homes almost 300,000, many of whom are India’s poorest and most marginalized groups. The ragpickers primarily wade through piles of unwanted goods to salvage easily recyclable materials such as glass, metal and plastic, which are then sold to scrap dealers, who then process the waste and sell it on either to be recycled or to be used directly by the industry.

Most of these processes take place in what is known as ‘Dhavari’s 13th Compound’; a place where over 80% of Mumbai’s waste is given a new lease of life.

The seller and the buyer both make money thus making it a true revenue-generating idea. In fact, wages in Dhavari are well above the monthly average at 3,000 to 15,000 rupees per month. This fascinating world of generating revenue out of trash has earned the industry the label ‘Dharavi’s Recycling Miracle’.

Extraordinarily, India has no municipal waste management policy or program of recycling which makes the work of the ragpickers indispensable to the city.

Due to the lack of formal systems of waste collection, it falls to the city’s ragpickers to provide this basic service for fellow citizens. Without them, solid waste and domestic garbage would not be collected or recycled, let alone sorted.

Dharavi’s Influence and Paperman

Inspired by the ragpickers of Mumbai, Paperman, a non-governmental organisation situated in India’s eastern city of Chennai (formerly known as Madras) helps to promote and create awareness about recycling and organises campaigns to combat many of the social problems India’s urban areas are rife with.

Founded by Keralan-born and environment conscious Matthew Jose in 2010, Paperman is a social venture aimed at creating a paper recycling revolution, inspired by the ragpickers of Mumbai. The program has reached over 100 schools and 2 million students in Chennai, educating them about recycling but also laying emphasis on the role Paperman plays in India’s bigger recycling picture.

Paperman now has the support of various corporate and governmental organisations and it appears it has already generated a ripple effect, having spread its campaign to 66 cities across India. It is these grassroots movements that, we hope, will make India a role model for the world in dealing with environmental issues.

A lesson to be learnt

Recycling is still very much the focus of many developed countries, who continuously strive to improve their recycling endeavours. Despite many of the social and ethical controversies surrounding the recycling industry in India, Dharavi has carved a reputation for itself as the ecological heart of Mumbai, recycling up to 85% of all its waste material produced by the city.

This compares strikingly to the UK recycling figures. Over the last decade, less than 20% of the waste produced has been recycled. The UK produces 30.5 million tonnes of waste each year. This is equivalent to a staggering 23.9 million tonnes of waste in landfills each and every year.

If the UK could match the recycling rates of Mumbai, it would leave only a quarter of existing waste entering landfills per year (around 6 million tonnes), but also costs in sourcing materials would be dramatically cheaper. This reduction in sourcing costs could potentially create higher profit margins, followed by generous reinvestment opportunities into crucial areas responsible for re-booting the economy.

With an accelerating consumer culture and population numbers on the rise, waste management will continue to be a pressing issue of today’s environmental climate. Resources are limited but wants are unlimited.

In India, the fact remains that recycling has helped reduce the ever-increasing volumes of trash, fill less landfills, produce bio gas and provide cleaner societies, as well as conserving resources and reducing costs.

The scavenger mentality, grassroots recycling and sheer necessity of Dharavi’s ragpickers have led to imaginative leaps in deploying waste and a growing number of environmental campaigners recognize Dharavi as becoming the green lung stopping Mumbai choking to death on its own waste.

by Victoria Moore