New Delhi: A few months after he set up his plastic recycling unit in Mundka, in west Delhi, Anant Vats discovered that he needed to give up his glasses. He also had to shave less and wear shabbier clothes. “I had to have that scruffy look,” he recalls. “It was the only way I could fit in here. Mundka is such a closed community.”
Click here to view a slideshow of images from the Mundka plastic scrap market
Vats, who has an MBA degree from the Indian Institute of Technology, Chennai, had been working for Infosys Technologies Ltd in Houston in late 2008 when he felt the urge “to do something green”. He quit his job and arrived at Mundka, a sprawling emporium of plastic detritus on the Delhi-Rohtak highway—and an industry so suspicious of “educated outsiders” that Vats still struggles to work within it.
But the home-grown economics and the commercial ecosystem of Mundka have thrilled him no end. “I understood markets for the first time only when I came here,” Vats says. “This is a real market.”
In the literature of recycling, Mundka was for long referred to as Asia’s biggest destination for plastic scrap—and recent publications call it the second biggest—although it isn’t clear where this statistic comes from. Mundka really began to fatten itself on waste only after June 1995, when the old plastic-scrap market in Jwalapuri was gutted in a fire, and the trade needed a new facility.
Seller’s market: Mundka in west Delhi is home to around 400 units that segregate and recycle plastic scrap. Ramesh Pathania/Mint
But in such a thoroughly informal economy, there is no reliable way to know the volume of scrap moving through Mundka. Delhi produces more than 600 tonnes of plastic waste every year, and Mundka also receives scrap from much of north India and even from Europe and the US.
Remarkably, according to Of Poverty and Plastic, a book by economist Kaveri Gill, 60-80% of the plastic in Mundka is successfully recycled—far above the recycling rates in Europe and China.
Mundka exists in a tenuous state of truce with the law. It is, strictly speaking, illegal. Three years ago, a master plan for Delhi identified it as one of 19 spots to be redeveloped as industrial areas before 2021.
“Only after that will the Mundka units become legal,” says Dharmendra, chairman of the Delhi Pollution Control Committee (DPCC), who uses one name only. “And that will take some time.”
In a way, however, the Delhi government has tacitly acknowledged Mundka’s necessity—by not shutting it down; by feeding it power; and by cleaning up its refuse yard, its dump-within-a-dump.
Vats didn’t exactly start his business at the most opportune time. The global economy was weathering a torrid spell in late 2008, and the roads of Mundka were eerily bereft of trucks. The price of crude oil had crashed, creating a rare situation where new plastic was just as inexpensive as recycled plastic.
“And everybody had many lakhs’ worth of inventory, so they just sat on their stock, because they didn’t want to sell at a reduced price and make a loss. I nearly had a breakdown,” he laughs. “Even now, I’d say the market is still recovering.”
Vats’ unit is a small shed, dominated by what he insists is the largest plastic grinder in Mundka. (“Thirty inches,” he says proudly. “We bought it in a distress sale.”) The grinder is used to cut up polypropylene—PP, in Mundka slang—a thin, translucent plastic that Vats buys in the form of used drinking cups.
The shed’s floor is carpeted with little shavings of PP, there are wisps of it in Vats’ hair, and seven people work at scooping chopped PP into sacks, to be trucked away to a pellet-making factory in nearby Kamruddin Nagar.
The plastic scrap business in Mundka is one of emaciated margins. Vats buys close to a tonne of PP every day, from nearly 20 sellers, at Rs22-26 per kg. “It’s a seller’s market, because there are so many people willing to buy,” he says. “Sometimes they even ask me straight out: ‘How much are you willing to pay?’”
In weeding out sand and unusable plastic, Vats may suffer a further loss of Rs2-3 per kg. He then sells his shredded PP to his pellet-maker at Rs26-29 per kg. Vats smiles as he recites these figures: “As you can tell, it’s a tough business.”
On a piece of paper, Vats carefully sketches a flowchart of scrap plastic, beginning with miscellaneous ragpickers and small traders, building volumes via bigger traders, arriving as kadak—jumbled plastic—to the ardhis (sorters) at Mundka, passing after segregation to suppliers like Vats, and ending in factories that melt the plastic into pellets, to be then sold to manufacturers of plastic goods.
Most of these factories lie in the Narela or Bawana areas of Delhi; of the 400-odd units in Mundka, Vats estimates an ardhi’s monthly turnover to be Rs40-50 lakh, and the turnover of a small supplier like himself to be Rs4-5 lakh.
“When I came here, I thought there were so many inefficiencies, so much wasted labour,” Vats says. “But I realized this system works for this particular situation.” For instance, Vats had wanted to bypass the ardhis and buy kadak directly from traders, but he rapidly learnt that the incoming scrap was so thoroughly jumbled that it took a peculiar knowledge to sort it well. “So I realized that these guys add value too.”
In one ardhi’s yard in the heart of Mundka, Munna Lal Patel does the work he has been doing for a decade now: looking through a pile of plastic and identifying varieties with minimal effort. As if it were some bizarre laboratory, Mundka has developed its own quirky tests for plastic, inexpensive and rapid—and surprisingly effective.
“So see here, for ABS (acrylonitrile butadiene styrene, used often in auto parts) we test with a chemical.” Asked what the chemical is called, Patel shrugs and says: “I don’t know. We just call it ‘chemical’.” He holds up a Johnson’s baby oil bottle full of a clear liquid that smells like the acetone in nail polish remover. He dabs a little on his finger and touches the plastic; it leaves a sticky fingerprint. “That’s how we know it’s ABS.”
With other plastics, he snaps them in half, listens to the sound they make as they break, and peers at their cross-section. If a plastic looks like Delrin—a durable polymer found in toys and cutlery—Patel applies a flame to it to make sure. “Delrin burns very lightly, and it doesn’t separate out into threads like other plastics do.”
Like everyone else in Mundka, Patel works with his bare hands; if the Delrin burns, he nonchalantly inhales its fumes as he examines it. The lack of standardized safety has been the most barbed criticism of Mundka. “Once in six months we have a fire somewhere,” says Vats’ foreman, who goes only by the name Sikandar. “I used to smoke in the yard, but now I’ve started to step out to smoke.” Most of the workers, he insists, are sensible, but that does not preclude the odd tragic accident.
Far more persistent dangers exist at the recycling factories, where plastics from Mundka are washed in strong caustic soda, melted and set into new shapes with heat—all without adequate ventilation. Vinod Sharma, a researcher with an NGO named Toxics Link, has spent the last four months in such facilities, and he is particularly concerned about a class of plastic called brominated flame retardants (BFRs). “BFRs are prone to leach in recycled products and contaminate them,” Sharma says. “And they’re severely carcinogenic. When they’re being heated in the factories, they’re poisoning the workers there.”
In Kamruddin Nagar, a “factory” can just be the size of a large garage, always hidden from passing eyes by a rolling metal shutter, its identity protected zealously by the area’s shopkeepers and pedestrians. In his office, one tight-lipped factory owner, who calls himself Jagdish, displays a handful of black-painted pellets made of recycled PP, which he claims to sell at Rs26 per kg. But he will not divulge how many kilograms of pellets he makes every day, nor will he allow visitors onto the shop floor.
The imposition of safety standards on Mundka will come, says DPCC’s Dharmendra, only after its redevelopment as an industrial area.
Kaveri Gill, Mundka’s foremost chronicler, acknowledges these faults, but she argues that the market still fills a crucial need. “If we can’t help them, leave them alone,” she said in an interview. It is a point that Vats also makes. “Mundka is seen as a problem,” he says. “But it’s not. We’re a solution to a problem.”