Beauty of Recycling: It’s Man vs. Machine in the battle for recycling

Taking the well being of labourers in countries where recycling actually happens needs to be part of the larger mandate of socially conscious recycling.

Young Welder, Bombay, India, 1994

Young Welder, Bombay, India, 1994 via Metrovaartha

Ships from all over the world come to Alang, a coastal village in Gujarat to be broken down. Here, they have been broken down piece by piece, for three decades now. The ship breaking industry in Alang, came to international attention recently when the horrific risks it posed to Indian labourers were highlighted by media. In 2006, the French ship Clemenceau that was due to be broken down at Alang ,was denied access by the Supreme Court of India, because of the toxic waste it contained.

Recycling is a dangerous activity. In the case of large products like ships and buildings, it can even take the lives of those involved in it.

Yet in a country like India, recycling has also brought livelihood to thousands who are willing to risk a limb for a days earning. To mechanise recycling on the other hand is a costly affair and many Western countries still send their waste to third world countries where labour is cheap and safety norms very lax.

There are two elements to manual recycling: labour and skill. Both of these are changing rapidly in the Indian scenario and may also impact global recycling industries.

The daily wage for a manual labourer varies between Rs 250 to Rs 400. Daily wagers enjoy no protection to health and life and also have no permanence in their employment. They form a large part of the non formal industrial sector in India. In the slums of Dharavi in Mumbai, where there are nearly 200,000 people employed in recycling, the hazards of this sector are overwhelming. Daily wagers are also the easiest to replace – if one is injured in action, someone else comes along immediately to replace him.

Manual recycling also involves skill. Products that are challenging to break down require intelligent handling. The history of crafts in India shows that artisans are diminishing and people are fast losing their willingness and ability to work with their hands. This is due to the stigma attached to manual labour. Artisans children, rarely want to carry on the craft that has been in their families for generations and even highly paid weavers have no one to pass on their skills to. Anyone with the slightest education aspires to move into office jobs and out of manual labour.

In this context, manual labour is then left to the poorest of the poor and sometimes even children are forced into this kind of labour just to survive.

Western countries that take pride in their zero waste achievements need to question where and at what cost this recycling is being done. San Francisco’s waste is handled by a private company called Recology – they successfully separate materials but the actual recycling is still done in other countries. Taking the well being of the labourers in those countries also needs to be part of the mandate of socially conscious recycling.

Manual recycling has another very challenging issue – that of environmental pollution. Products that are compositely constructed of multiple materials require effort in breaking them down. E-waste is an example where small components render precious metals but require toxic chemicals to retrieve them. In this process, the pollution caused to the environment in the unorganised sector is unaccounted for. The decision of the Supreme Court to send the French ship back to its waters, was also to save our seas from the pollution that would inadvertently be released into them.

Industries are only now beginning to recognise the value of waste. Mechanised processes that convert plastic to fuel or road tar are being developed. Machines that can segregate plastic waste according to density and also reconvert them into pellets, pipes or sheets are being seen in the market. Each step of the recycling process, such as separation, shredding, sorting needs a different approach and machines that can do them, using wind and magnetic processes, are being evolved. These mechanised processes will increase costs of recycling even as they may minimise the health and environmental hazards.

Who bears the cost of all this recycling?

Ultimately, everyone in the chain of the life cycle of the product needs to become aware and take ownership of the need to recycle.

Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) now places the primary mandate of recycling onto the producers, since they are the ones that have the most control over the design, production and marketing. It holds them responsible for the recollection and safe disposal of the products as well.

If they cannot do it themselves, they can delegate the recovery of materials to other companies whose specific mandate is to recover and recycle the waste created by the products of their clients.

If collection of waste is systematised, the earning from the recycling industry could also be increased thus making it a profitable endeavour for entrepreneurs. In India, possibly such recycling enterprises could also support labour intensive manual recycling, making sure that it is done in ways that protect individual health of labour and the environment we all live in.


These articles form a series in our Green Idea campaign called The Beauty of Recycling conducted by eCoexist and Studio Alternatives and sponsored by the Government of Maharashtra, Environment Department. The aim of the campaign is to raise awareness about the aesthetic and financial potential of recycling. Read more articles from the series here


Manisha SG is the founder of eCoexist, a social enterprise based in Pune. She is an architect by education, an environmentalist by passion and an artist at heart. Her focus at work, and in life, is to understand the deep inner connectivity in all of Nature. more


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Manisha SG is the founder of eCoexist, a social enterprise based in Pune. She is an architect by education, an environmentalist by passion and an artist at heart. Her focus at work, and in life, is to understand the deep inner connectivity in all of Nature. more

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