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Green Is The New Black

Dharavi: Asia’s Largest Slum Or A Recycling And Circular Economy Goldmine?

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Dharavi Slum India

In early 2018 we toured one of India’s biggest slums, Dharavi, to explore its evolution into a $1billion circular economy that prioritises things like education.

Dharavi is known as India’s largest slum and the second biggest slum in Asia. Situated in the heart of Mumbai, between 750,000 to a million people (although the actual number is unknown) are squeezed within just a little over 500 acres or 2.1km2. Which makes its population density approximately 277,136/km2 and one of the most densely populated areas in the world.

We took a tour around the infamous slum and trust us; stats don’t lie. There were people everywhere! Men, women, children, cats, dogs and of course cows meandering through the masses. And the one thing they all had in common? No one seemed utterly miserable. Once you strip away the old perceptions of slums (that we’ve been presented through films like Slum Dog Millionaire), Dharavi is a fully functioning 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 US1billion annually, allowing most of the workers to earn well above the country’s minimum wage of 150 rupees a day.

Skilled workers can earn up to 1500 rupees a day, which is more than enough to live somewhat comfortably 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 secondary schools and 8 private. That’s right: private schools! It’s a properly run system with gyms, clinics, markets and schools; it’s a city in a city.

But wait.. what is a circular economy?

Our typical system is take (resources from the planet), make something and throw it away. But a circular economy is a system which reuses the resources from ‘waste’ back into the system so it becomes circular. It basically makes sure nothing goes to waste, and everything goes back into the system.

Circular economy goldmine

Nothing is wasted in Dharavi. From plastics and car batteries to computer parts, fluorescent lights, ballpoint pens, plastic bags, paper, cardboard boxes, wire hangers and any scrap material. Its economy runs 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 the Dharavi 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 is 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. Consider it a little like a recycling mafia chain. 60% of Mumbai’s plastic waste is recycled at Dharavi. Compare that to Singapore’s mere 19% recycling rate (and that’s with proper government recycling initiatives) and it’s pretty impressive. 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.

So what’s the process?

1. Sorting and segregation – after receiving the waste, a few thousand workers sort and separate the waste into recyclables (metals and plastics) and non-recyclables. The plastic is then sorted further by colour and quality.

2. Crushing – The sorted materials are crushed into tiny plastics, microplastics if you will, with the help of crushing machines made of scrap waste metals.

3. Cleaning – the plastics are 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 for different purposes.

The locals even have a unique relationship with the paint shop owners around Mumbai; they collect all used and thrown away paint cans, clean them inside and out, repaint them to look brand new, before selling them back to the paint shops for reuse. This process can be done about four times before the metal is too weak, and then it’s thrown into the regular metal recycling process.

Tough like leather

We can’t talk about Dharavi without mentioning leather. Amazingly, Dharavi’s leather industry is one of the biggest in the world. It provides leather to multiple lifestyle and luxury goods brands from the high-street (Zara) to the high-end (Giorgio Armani). Due to the ban on cattle slaughter in India, the leather comes mainly from goats and sheep. It even has it’s own branding and logo, which they switch when big brands pay extra (!). 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, but like everything, there are nuances to consider. In Dharavi the ‘never wasting anything’ mindset prevails. So all leather scraps are turned into energy and reused for other industries like pottery within the slum. It literally helps fuel their economy to what it is today.

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 being a circular economy. The mindset of not wasting anything may not have come from a sustainability standpoint, but nonetheless, it works out as a sustainable model. Dharavi is a great model of having sustainability at the forefront of business. It’s proven to be extremely beneficial 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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