Mumbai’s slumdog recycling works surprisingly well – unless you’re one of its workers

Flying over Dharavi, a vast and sprawling slum in Mumbai with a knack for recycling. Image: Mike Towber

Dharavi is a 550-acre slum, a maze of corrugated iron and open sewers at the heart of India’s financial capital, Mumbai.

It is one of the most densely populated places on earth with population of roughly one million people.

A casual observer would see nothing but poverty, misery and squalor but look closer and you’ll find that the slum is the unlikely home of a recycling industry with efficiency levels reportedly higher than the UK’s.

For those struggling to survive, there is value in almost anything and nothing goes to waste. Prince Charles once even said that the slum, made famous by the film Slumdog Millionaire, was a model for the world in terms of sustainability.

Over the decades, Bollywood has sold an image of Mumbai as the ‘City of Dreams’, and people from all corners of the subcontinent have travelled to the city in search of a better life. The large majority of them end up in slums, like Dharavi.

This huge rural to urban migration has catapulted Mumbai, once a small British trading port, into the global league of megacity, with an eyewatering population of 21m (Greater Manchester’s population is 2.8m).

Mumbai's vast population of 21m creates problems. Image: Skye Vidur.

The problems that come with such a population are immense. Simply delivering electricity, sanitary provisions and clean water to the population is a mammoth task. But there’s one problem that stands out everywhere in India – rubbish.

In India, the handling of waste is considered a huge social taboo.

Historically, the lowest ranks of the Hindu caste system have been left to deal with waste disposal and many will still consider a person low and dirty if they handle more than the bare minimum of waste. Consequently, waste is dumped everywhere -- in the streets, in the sea or behind homes.

Mumbai is no stranger to the problem. Every day the city will produce a veritable mountain of over 10,000 metric tonnes of solid waste.   

This will be collected in large part by an army of 120,000 rag-pickers – unofficial waste collectors – who will take anything reusable they find to Dharavi and its famed 13th compound.

Plastic piles up for recycling in Dharavi. Image: Cory Doctorow

They will sell their waste by the kilo to the hundreds of small recycling plants, and a kilogram of plastic bottles might be worth 15p. 

The waste will then be processed by thousands of workers employed by the scrap masters. Dozens of plastic variations will be skilfully sorted into piles. These piles will be melted down in huge vats before being broken up into tiny reusable pellets. Metals and E-Waste will be broken down and sold for scrap or reusable parts.

In this way, it’s estimated that 80 per cent of the Mumbai’s solid waste is recycled into usable materials. The UK’s recycling rate was almost half that, with just under 45 per cent of household waste recycled in 2015.

Politicians are well aware that the slum’s work is essential. Situated in the centre of Mumbai, Dharavi sprawls across some of the most desirable real-estate in Asia.

Dharavi's bustling messiness. Image: Institute for Money, Technology, and Financial Inclusion

However, the government knows that if they start to redevelop the land and damage the industry, the city will soon be drowning in its own waste.


The whole of Mumbai would simply be “one dump yard” if it weren’t for the ragpickers and the recycling units in the slums, says Vinod Shetty from the Acord Foundation, an NGO working in Dharavi.

Dharavi has a huge internal economy, which is estimated to be worth around £700m. Along with leatherworking, recycling forms a fundamental part of the economy. A fifth of the slum’s population are estimated to be employed in waste disposal.  

However, while the work is effective, it’s incredibly hazardous, with few units adhering to any form of regulation. Workers will sift through piles of festering rubbish with no safety equipment in extreme heat, with many children, age as young as five, working alongside the adults for as little as £1 a day.

Residents along Dharavi's narrow streets and alleyways. Image: Kounosu

Small cuts and wounds quickly become infected as workers sift through medical waste and other biohazardous substances.

Rag-pickers and recyclers hail mainly from the lower rungs of India’s caste system and struggle to gain formal recognition from the authorities.

“Most of the waste pickers in Mumbai are either women or children and they live and work under the most distressing conditions,” says Vimlendu Jha, director of environmental NGO Swechha.

“[They’ll be] harassed by the police for not having a proof of identity. Their contribution is never acknowledged.

“There is no clear policy to protect their rights or provide better conditions. The government doesn’t even acknowledge they exist.”

All this will need to change – or it won’t just be the rubbish that’s revolting.

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The mountain in North Wales that tried to stop the UK’s blackout

Elidir Fawr, the mountain in question. Image: Jem Collins.

Last Friday, the UK’s National Grid turned to mush. Not the official term perhaps, but an accurate one after nearly one million people were left without power across the country, with hundreds more stranded at train stations – or even on trains (which isn’t nearly as fun as it might immediately sound). 

Traffic lights stopped working, back-up power failed in hospitals, and business secretary Andrea Leadsom launched an investigation into exactly what happened. So far though, the long and short of it is that a gas-fired power station in Bedfordshire failed just before 5 o’clock, followed just two minutes later by Hornsea offshore wind farm. 

However, amid the resulting chaos and inevitable search to find someone to blame for the outage, a set of mountains (yes, mountains) in North Wales were working extremely hard to keep the lights on.

From the outside, Elidir Fawr, doesn’t scream power generation. Sitting across from the slightly better known Mount Snowdon, it actually seems quite passive. After all, it is a mountain, and the last slate quarry in the area closed in 1969.

At a push, you’d probably guess the buildings at the base of the mountain were something to do with the area’s industrial past, mostly thanks to the blasting scars on its side, as I did when I first walked past last Saturday. 

But, buried deep into Elidir Fawr is the ability to generate an astounding 1,728 megawatts of electricity – enough to power 2.5 million homes, more than the entire population of the Liverpool region. And the plant is capable of running for five hours.

Dubbed by locals at the ‘Electric Mountain’, Dinorwig Power Station, is made up of 16km of underground tunnels (complete with their own traffic light system), in an excavation which could easily house St Paul’s Cathedral.

Instead, it’s home to six reversible pumps/turbines which are capable of reaching full capacity in just 16 seconds. Which is probably best, as Londoners would miss the view.

‘A Back-Up Facility for The National Grid’

And, just as it often is, the Electric Mountain was called into action on Friday. A spokesperson for First Hydro Company, which owns the generators at Dinorwig, and the slightly smaller Ffestiniog, both in Snowdonia, confirmed that last Friday they’d been asked to start generating by the National Grid.

But just how does a mountain help to ease the effects of a blackout? Or as it’s more regularly used, when there’s a surge in demand for electricity – most commonly when we all pop the kettle on at half-time during the World Cup, scientifically known as TV pick-up.

The answer lies in the lakes at both the top and bottom of Elidir Fawr. Marchlyn Mawr, at the top of the mountain, houses an incredible 7 million tonnes of water, which can be fed down through the mountain to the lake at the bottom, Llyn Peris, generating electricity as it goes.


“Pumped storage technology enables dynamic response electricity production – ofering a critical back-up facility during periods of mismatched supply and demand on the national grid system,” First Hydro Company explains.

The tech works essentially the same way as conventional hydro power – or if you want to be retro, a spruced up waterwheel. When the plant releases water from the upper reservoir, as well as having gravity on their side (the lakes are half a kilometre apart vertically) the water shafts become smaller and smaller, further ramping up the pressure. 

This, in turn, spins the turbines which are linked to the generators, with valves regulating the water flow. Unlike traditional UK power stations, which can take hours to get to full capacity, at Dinorwig it’s a matter of 16 seconds from a cold start, or as little as five if the plant is on standby.

And, designed with the UK’s 50hz frequency in mind, the generator is also built to shut off quickly and avoid overloading the network. Despite the immense water pressure, the valves are able to close off the supply within just 20 seconds. 

At night, the same thing simply happens in reverse, as low-cost, surplus energy from the grid is used to pump the water back up to where it came from, ready for another day of hectic TV scheduling. Or blackouts, take your pick.

Completed in 1984, the power station was the product of a decade of work, and the largest civil engineering project commissioned at the time – and it remains one of Europe’s largest manmade caverns. Not that you’d know it from the outside. And really, if we’ve learned anything from this, it’s that looks can be deceiving, and that mountains can actually be really damn good at making electricity. 

Jem Collins is a digital journalist and editor whose work focuses on human rights, rural stories and careers. She’s the founder and editor of Journo Resources, and you can also find her tweeting @Jem_Collins.