Photo story: Inside a dry waste segregation centre in Mumbai

The 46 dry waste segregation centres in Mumbai prepare dry waste collected from houses for recycling. A glimpse of the proceedings at one of them.

An often overlooked link in the entire waste segregation and management chain is the dry waste segregation centre (DWSC). Mumbai has 46 of them — of varying sizes and capacities — spread across the 24 wards of the city. They serve as the heart of decentralised waste management; collecting waste from houses across the city, clubbing and sorting them and finally, sending it for recycling. 

In Mumbai, the centres work in partnership with the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) and organisations involved in waste management. The BMC provides the space and vehicles for the centre. An NGO then takes over, overseeing the dry waste collection, employing waste pickers and sorters, and sending the collated dry waste to respective recyclers. 

This particular DWSC, on Ajit Glass road in Jogeshwari, is run by the NGO Aakar Mumbai

The journey of dry waste

Garbage and garbage bags dumped atop of each other at the dry waste segregation centre
When the dry waste first arrives, it is dumped in the entryway. Pic: Sabah Virani
A man in a turqoise t-shirt standing in front of filled plastic sacks
Rashid Faridi is the man in charge of the centre. Pic: Sabah Virani

While wet waste is the prerogative of the municipality, dry waste collection — provided it is segregated and stored separately — is the responsibility of the NGO. The frequency of collection differs, depending upon the quantity of waste the housing society generates and vehicles with the dry waste segregation centre. This DWSC has access to two tempos, one given by the BMC, and the other by Aakar.

When it arrives, the waste is a mix of paper, plastic, metal and hazardous waste. Before it can be sent for recycling, it will go through several stages of segregation. To see this in action, look no further than the DWSC.

3 plastic sacks filled with segregated waste, one with paint cans, another with yoghurt cartons
Paint cans and yoghurt cartons: dry waste needs to be segregated into minute categories of the same kind and quality of material. This is not as straightforward as it sounds; plastic comes in polyethylene (PE), polypropylene (PP), milky PP, HDPE, LDPE, PET, and many more types. Pic: Sabah Virani
A woman sitting in the midst of large plastic sacks stacks up all around her, sorting waste from a bag
A waste picker sorts through her collected waste at the DWSC. Pic: Sabah Virani
A man in a red shirt sitting besides a hill of waste paper, including disposable cups and tissues
Madhavram, a sorter at the DWSC. Behind him is what he estimates is 100 kg of paper. Pic: Sabah Virani

A crucial aspect of the DWSCs is incorporating waste pickers into the formal waste management ecosystem.

Madhavram chooses to work on a contract basis; for every kilogram of material he segregates, he is paid Rs 2. The lighter materials, like tissue paper, fetch a slightly higher price of Rs 2.5. The numbers add up, and with some overtime, he can earn Rs 20,000 to Rs 25,000 in a month.

It’s been seven years since Madhavram started working at the DWSC, finding the gig through word-of-mouth. Earlier, as an employee, he was paid only Rs 12,000 a month.

A weighing scale set on the ground amidst waste scattered around
The segregated waste is packed and weighed, according to which the workers on contract are paid. Pic: Sabah Virani

Read more: Much of the segregated dry waste in Mumbai ends up in landfills; here’s why

A man skinning the rings and caps off clear plastic bottles with a knife and gloves, separating the bottles and the rings and caps
A worker skins off the metal caps and rings off the plastic bottles, separating them into different piles. Pic: Sabah Virani
A view of the grime covered and torn gloved hands, with a knife, used to separate the rings off plastic bottles
He gives a glimpse of his dust and grime-covered hands, the right protected from the knife by a glove shredded at three fingers. Pic: Sabah Virani

The plastic bottles pictured are higher quality Indian-brand alcohol bottles, fetching Rs 5 more than a run-off–the-mill drinking water bottle. But they require laborious detaching of metal caps and rings. The labels are exempt; they are made of paper, which will disintegrate during the washing stage of recycling.

Three women sitting and laughing at the dry waste segregation centre on discarded office chairs and waste to be taken for recycling
Waste pickers having a rest and a laugh, along with a cup of tea, at the DWSC. Pic: Sabah Virani

The DWSC also buys waste from waste pickers, offering them a rupee higher than the market rate for a kilogram of each product.

The women are on the hunt in the neighbouring areas from 9 am to 2 pm, searching for recycling material littered or in public bins. They manage to earn Rs 1,800 to Rs 2,500 on weeks when the catch is good. But when it is not, as on rainy days, they barely make Rs 1,600.

A gas stove with a pan in the middle of equipment and plastic sacks
A little tea station for the workers at the dry waste segregation centre who work all day from 9 am to 8 pm, with an hour for lunch. Pic: Sabah Virani
Plastic sacks filled with segregated dry waste stacked up on top of each other with other unpacked plastic waste and plastic cans around
There is method in the mess; a passerby may not easily be able to make sense of the piled sacks, but each of them is filled with carefully sorted material ready to be sent for recycling. Pic: Sabah Virani
A tempo bulging with empty waste plastic water bottles, before they can go for recycling
If the amount of a particular recyclable good collected falls short of the quantity needed to pack a truck full for recycling, Rashid calls for reinforcements. Here, it is a truck brimming with empty PET plastic bottles. Pic: Sabah Virani

The DWSC buys the remaining quantity needed to pack a full truck from private scrap vendors in the city. After all, most recycling centres are far away — on the outskirts of Mumbai in Dahanu, or outside the state in Surat or Kanpur.

A man lifting a heavy bundle of paper waste into an open truck at the dry waste segregation centre
Once enough material to send off for recycling is collected, it’s compressed into bales – weighing over 100 kg – and sent on its way. Pic: Sabah Virani

This DWSC at Ajit Glass Road is well over 2,000 square feet. Rashid estimates the centre receives around 10 tons of dry waste every day for segregation.

“Our aim is to stop plastic from being burnt or sent to the dumping ground. That is beneficial for the environment,” he says.

Not all wards have it this good. Ward E only has one DWSC, at 250 square feet. Ward N and S also have to make do with one DWSC, sized at around 540 square feet. In the absence of adequate collection and segregation, most dry waste is destined for the landfill.

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