Recycling Mumbai

Recycling waste is a multimillion rupee business in Mumbai. Dharavi’s speciality is recycling plastic. According to the NSDF survey, Dharavi’s plastic recycling industry is the largest in India. It employs over 5,000 people and the turnover in 1986 was an estimated Rs 60 lakh a year. Today, it should be many times higher. Every day, more than 3,000 sacks of plastic leave this area. 


The recycling and scrap area of Dharavi is concentrated in what is commonly known as 13th Compound, located on the corner where 60 Feet Road meets the Mahim-Sion link road. Across the road is the Mithi river and the Mahim creek, ostensibly an environmentally sensitive area which is supposed to be preserved. In fact, it is a dumping ground. If you go back in the course of a year, you will find a good part of the swamp next to the road has been filled. In another six months, huts will spring up on this reclaimed land. And so Dharavi will extend a little more to the north and the new entrants into Dharavi will live in this swamp, much as their forebears in the rest of the settlement did five decades back.


Just outside the sheds, where the plastic is being separated, you find stacked large blue drums with symbols of  well-known multinational companies. Companies send their drums for repair and after paying a small amount, get them back ready to be reused. The badly damaged ones are recycled. Next to plastic recycling, the drum recycling business is the biggest—with 145 establishments doing this.



But what about the remnants of hazardous chemicals that might still be in these drums? Do the workers handling them protect themselves? Such questions are never asked. Indeed, they never occur to the people running the businesses. And clearly, the multinational companies getting the work done at Sanola Compound could not care less. After all, their hands are clean and they can show that they take good care of all their workers. What is done outside their factory premises, even for jobs done for them, is not their responsibility. So a little bit of First World-Third World politics is on display right here in Sanola Compound, in Dharavi, in Mumbai.

In the 13th Compound, everything is recycled. Cotton scrap, iron scrap, empty tins, empty bottles and plastic drums. There are 722 small and big establishments, most with licenses. The majority are small setups working out of lofts. Here, the majority of workers were between the ages of twenty-one and fifty. But as all the workers are on daily wages, it is possible that some of this information is not entirely representative as the composition of the workforce would keep changing.

(Source: Compiled from Kalpana Sharma’s book ‘Rediscovering Dharavi’, Penguin Books, 2000)