Caroline Knowles
5 min readMar 3, 2023

A better life awaits you’

Plastic recycling in Dharavi, Mumbai

Caroline Knowles

A better life is the promise of a real estate billboard towering over the informal settlement — some call a slum — of Dharavi in Mumbai. This isn’t any old slum: it is Asia’s biggest, which shot to international fame in the (2008) film Slumdog Millionaire, although it was famous in India long before that, the subject of numerous stories and films of the ‘informal city’. The billboard images suggest that a better life is high-rise apartments in gleaming white, serviced by well-functioning infrastructures, like seamless water supply and waste collection: facilities which exist primarily in the aspirational plans of the Bombay Municipal Corporation (BMC). Only the new metro lines-in-construction, hidden behind hoardings promising that ‘Mumbai is upgrading’ are likely to sustain the city’s claims to modernity anytime soon.

With an estimated population of between 18 and 20 million, Mumbai is one of the world’s most significant global mega cities. One of its financial districts, the Bandra Kurla Complex, nestling against the jumbled informalities of Dheravi expresses its global credentials in the high-rise architecture of international banking. Mumbai’s aspiration of modern urbanity proposes to radically transform (or flatten) Dharavi. And yet without Dharavi and other informal settlements like it, the modern global city couldn’t function; it would instead be choked in waste and deprived of vital low-paid service workers.

But Dharavi sits uneasily on the edge of the modernising project to which it is essential. Its narrow streets buzz with the incessant motion of people, things, vehicles, and materials. Every square inch provides a living for someone. The hum of sewing machines turning out garments mixes with the sound of construction, high buildings rise inexorably over its low-level skyline with its telecommunication towers, satellite dishes, tangled electrical wires, and surveillance cameras. Informal waste collectors connected with recycling enterprises clear every bit of waste from its unmade streets. Despite sporadic water and power supplies, the rough, uneven streets, sometimes dripping with wastewater, are magically free of litter, although no one is entirely sure how this works.

A research project led by Graham Jeffery at the University of the West of Scotland and colleagues at the ACORN FOUNDATION and the Indian Institute of Technology (IITB) in Mumbai, funded by the British Academy under the Global Challenges Research Fund Urban Infrastructures of Well-Being Programme[i] is looking into how this works. As plastics account for a large proportion of waste, the project researchers are investigating how the plastics recycling enterprises based in Dharavi’s 13 Compounds operate.

Using the lab at the ACORN FOUNDATION as a base, the researchers are unfolding the lives and concerns of collectors who gather plastic waste. Walking through the narrow streets with them, I understand that they are getting to grips with the citizen science knowledge and skills of sorters, who know how to identify different kinds of plastic polymers, through tapping them, tasting them, and other sensorial methods of identification. They are mapping the ‘go-downs’, the storage spaces where waste plastic is stored to await collection by recyclers and their agents. Bit by bit they are gradually developing a picture of how this highly organised ‘informal’ system works. They are finding out who does what and what they earn. Following the chain from higher to lower value plastics, they watch them being ground into granules on locally made machines for reuse in new production processes.

The research team are also devising methods to calculate how much plastic is collected and recycled across the city-region. No one knows this. The municipal authorities collect only a fraction of the city’s waste and have few compactors, so they rely on this system, even though they don’t fully understand how it works, or its social and economic significance as a way of making a livelihood. The research team are trying to calculate the Co2 saving in using recycled plastics rather than ‘virgin’ plastic made from newly extracted hydrocarbons. They have discovered that speed, keeping plastics moving, is key to extracting value on such low margins. And they are arming the community with their data so that they can use it in struggles to have their conditions improved and their valuable labour recognised as crucial to the basic functioning of the modern city in waiting. If a better life awaits the citizens of Mumbai, it should involve everyone, including vital workers performing what is traditionally seen as dirty, low status work.

[i] This project is called Urban Infrastructures of Well-Being: lessons from the interface of formal and informal urban systems in Dharavi, Mumbai. Researchers are Dr Ben Parry from Bath Spa University, Professors Graham Jeffery, Andrew Hursthouse, John Connolly, and Dr Julie Clark from the University of the West of Scotland, Dr Vidya Sagar Pancholi (ACORN India), Professor Anurag Garg (IIT Bombay) and Dr Mary Josephine (Nirmala Women’s’ College). The project website can be found at

Caroline Knowles is the Director of the British Academy’s Global Challenges Research Fund (GCRF) Urban Infrastructures of Well-Being Programme and a Global Professorial Fellow at Queen Mary, University of London. An urban Sociologist with research experience in a number of cities, she is the author of many books and papers, most recently, Flip-Flop: A Journey through Globalisation’s Backroads, published by Pluto Press (2014 & 2015) and Serious Money: Walking Plutocratic London, published by Penguin (2022)