Delhi We climbed onto the first Delhi Metro train at Nehru Place and after three more train transfers on this fairly amazing and new subway system, we had reached the very end of the line in Mundka in the Delhi suburbs. I wanted to see what Kaveri Gill in Of Poverty and Plastic had called perhaps the world’s largest plastic recycling hub, and certainly the center of this huge industry in Delhi, one of the world’s largest cities in a country where 70 to 80% of what can be recycled is recycled (compared to 7% in the USA for example!). I had first been tipped off to this book while meeting with Delhi-based author and former USA community and labor organizer (and current Social Policy contributor), Mridula Koshy, on my last visit to the city, and the book had proven invaluable in helping me understand the economics and markets where our waste pickers were critical field troops.
Leaving the Metro, we then walked several kilometers along the bustling highway until turning left into another world. Kilometer after kilometer, cheek to jowl, behind every wall, lean-to, and scrap of fencing were acres and acres of plastic recycling sorting areas, piled high in all varieties and bundled nearly to the sky. Workers swarmed among the mess, sorting items, stacking with the claw hooks associated in another time with dock hands, and piling all of these items onto carts, bicycles, and trucks. Here there would be a 30 foot high stack of plastic car fenders, there would be a small mountain of old plastic sandals or shoe soles, and everywhere plastic bags, electronic items, TV set covers, and the like. Take all of this and multiply for miles! It was breathtaking in every way. Workers pointed out to us the slums not far away where 4000 wastepickers lived nearby who worked in the sorting and stacking.
For 90 minutes we never stopped walking in a giant circle that took us from several kilometers from the end of the Mundka line back and around to the previous subway stop, and as much as we had seen, we hardly touched the surface of this huge plastic recycling hub. This was not an area where brokers sad with old scales, but where there were regular scales which weighed entire truck loads of plastic goods as they came in and out. The plastics would only be interrupted by street vendors serving lunch on the sidewalks to the workers or shopkeepers nestled between plastic yards selling their wares.
We were oddities. Taking pictures here and there and talking to workers and brokers seemed strange to them. This was a separate world and we were visitors from the other planet where the goods began their route. All of what we saw though was simple a stage of the process. Once assembled and sorted here, then sold and stacked, these trucks were headed to the plants that would reprocess the plastics into new products. We didn’t go there this trip, but we were confident that wherever the plastic was heading, it would be back here again some day.