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Green Is The New Black

Dharavi: Asia’s largest slum or India’s very own recycling and circular economy goldmine

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We took a tour of India’s biggest slum, Dharavi, and found out how it has turned into a 1 billion dollar economy, is circular and prioritises things like education.

Dharavi is known as India’s biggest slum and the second biggest slum in Asia. Situated in the heart of Mumbai, it has around 750,000 to a million people (although the actual number is unknown) within just a little bit above 500 acres or 2.1km2. That makes their population density about 277,136/km2, making it one of the most densely populated areas in the world.
We took a little tour around the infamous slum and trust us, stats don’t lie. There were people everywhere! Men, women, Children, cats, dogs and of course some cows here and there. One thing they all had in common, none of them seemed utterly miserable. Taking away all the old perceptions of slums that we all got from Slum Dog Millionaire, Dharavi is a fully running economy. With 5000 businesses and 15,000 single-room factories (many of which focus on the recycling and sorting of Mumbai’s waste), the slum earns a total of US 1 billion annually, allowing most of the workers to earn well above the country’s minimum wage which is 150 rupees a day.
Skilled workers can earn up to 1500 rupees a day, which is more than enough to live somewhat comfortably in India and still have leftovers to send back to their families in Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and Bengal. This also allows them to pay bills, utilities and taxes in order to be legally living in such areas. Dharavi places high importance on education with 60 primarily schools 13 Sec schools and 8 private, that’s right, private schools! A properly run system with gyms, clinics, markets and schools, it’s a city in a city.
But wait.. what is circular economy? 
Our typical system is take (resources from the planet), make something and throw it away (although is there really any away?). A circular economy (for those who don’t know yet) is a system which reuses the resources from ‘waste’ back into the system so it becomes circular, basically making sure nothing goes to waste, everything goes back into the system and making a buck while you’re at it.

Circular economy goldmine 

Nothing is wasted in Dharavi. From plastics to metals to car batteries, computer parts, fluorescent lights, ballpoint pens, plastic bags, paper and cardboard boxes, wire hangers to literally any scrap material, their economy is run on recycling and reusing waste. With the amount of money they earn from each industry, it goes to show how much companies could benefit from sustainable waste management systems. If only more corporates could take a leaf out of their book, could we stop running out of landfills?
India is known as the second most polluted country in the world. In Mumbai alone, 9,400 tonnes of waste generated daily.  With 15,000 factories dedicated to recycling and sorting Mumbai’s waste, Dharavi employs 250,000 people just for this. 80% of Mumbai’s solid waste is recycled and given new life within Dharavi, an awesome recycling machine without which Mumbai would choke in it’s piled up trash.
Plastic recycling mafia chain 
Dharavi has connections and relationships with most operations and restaurants around the city to send them their waste to be dealt with. A little like a recycling mafia chain. 60% of Mumbai’s plastic waste is recycled at Dharavi. Pretty impressive compared to Singapore’s mere 19% and that’s with proper government recycling initiatives. Unregulated, ground up initiatives don’t seem that bad now do they? Dharavi’s plastic recycling industry alone employs almost 10,000 to 12,000 people.
The process
  1. Sorting and segregation – after receiving all the waste, a few thousand workers sort and separate the waste by recyclables (metals and plastics) and non-recyclables. The plastic is then sorted further by colour and quality.
  2. Crushing – after which, they are then crushed into tiny plastics, microplastics if you will, with the help of crushing machines made of scrap waste metals.
  3. Cleaning – the plastics are then cleaned thoroughly.
  4. Sold off to melting facilities – due to safety and health regulations, there are no plastic melting facilities in Dharavi itself. The plastic is sold off to industries all over India to be melted and reused as 60,000 different plastics and resold to companies.
For all those heavy metals…
Metals have a simpler recycling path in Dharavi. They are simply crushed and melted into metal blocks and resold to industries all over India to be melted and remembered for different purposes.
They even have a unique relationship with the paint shop owners around Mumbai. Collecting all used and thrown away paint cans (the big ones we see at a hardware shop or at a Nippon paint shop), they clean the can inside and out. It’s then repainted to look brand new and sold back to the paint shops for them to reuse. This process can be done about 4 times before the metal is too weak and then it’s thrown into the regular metal recycling process.
Tough like leather
Can’t talk about Dharavi without at least mentioning it’s leather. Dharavi’s leather industry is one of the biggest in the world, being a prominent provider of lifestyle and luxury goods to high-end brands like Zara and Giorgio Armani. Despite the ban on cattle slaughter in India, their leather comes mainly from goat and sheepskin. It even has it’s own branding and log, they just change when the big brands pay extra for them. Leather industry owners in the slum are what we call ‘humble millionaires’ living in apartments worth up to SGD500,000.
We all know the obvious animal rights and environmental issues that come along with leather, like every place in the world, it has its ups and downs. However, bringing back the mindset of never wasting anything, all the leather scraps, which are like mountains, is turned into energy and reused for other industries like pottery within the slum, helping to literally fuel their economy to what it is today. Showing once again, what you could do with waste (not in any way encouraging the slaughter of animals and the greenhouse gases that come along with it).
And the rest…
Industries such as Bakeries and potteries that mass produce and distribute throughout Mumbai save on fuel costs by reusing textile and leather scraps from the previous two industries. They also use discarded wood from all over the city to generate heat to run these operations. So really nothing goes to waste and one industry helps another, quite like a family network.

Dharavi’s billion dollar economy stems from the being a circular economy. The mindset of not wasting anything may not have come from a sustainability standpoint but more of the need to make a living, but nonetheless, it worked out as a sustainable model. Dharavi is a great model of having sustainability at the forefront of your business model is extremely beneficial in the long run and that we should stop looking at it as a last resort to help make our businesses better.
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A geography nerd from NUS, Trisha is a life-loving green enthusiast with a passion for conscious events. Having worked at Habitat for Humanity Singapore previously and now the community & event manager at Green Is The New Black, she has an incredible passion for people and the environment. She believes that everyone can do a little to make the world a better place.


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    FInally! An article that recognises the industriousness and hardworking soul of Dharavi. Of course sanitation and safety standards need to be improved, only wish the local givt authorities would get going on that!

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