Kamaluddin Khan spends all day sitting on a pile of garbage near the Dharavi pipeline, sorting through an assortment of broken spoons, toys, boxes and other plastic waste. But he is not a rag-picker, he’s quick to point out.
The lean 19-year-old is a plastics recycler, one of thousands in Dharavi who serve as vital if informal links in the long chain of buying and selling, sorting and moulding that makes up the slum’s massive plastics-recycling industry.
Khan has a place quite near the bottom of this chain.
First, rag pickers bring truckloads of plastic waste from the city’s dumping grounds to the myriad scrap-dealers in Dharavi’s bylanes.
Here, the trash is sorted by size and quality, with the bigger, better plastic scraps being sold to a larger dealer.
The smaller, discarded bits are sent down a different chain of dealers, and after much sorting, are bought by labourers like Khan at a rate of about R50 per 40-kg sack.
“We do the final sorting, segregating the little plastic pieces by colour, shape and quality, before selling them to those who grind, dye, melt and remould them into objects such as tiny bottles,” says Khan, a Class 5 dropout.
The son of a homemaker and a labourer in a godown for plastic waste, Khan is a second-generation Dharavi resident.
He began working to sort plastic scrap at age 10, to help support his parents and six siblings.
“I’m a professional. I can now recognise a handful of plastic types,” says Khan. “But an expert recycler can identify 165 different qualities of plastic.”
Khan begins his day at 9 am in the 80-sq-ft cement shanty that he shares with his parents and four siblings.
After a bath in a curtained corner of the house, he uses the public toilet down the road.
By 10 am he is at his dealer’s godown, a 20-minute walk away, where piles of gunny sacks are waiting to be sold.
Khan buys 20 to 50 sacks, depending on the sorting left over from the day before, then teams up with other recyclers to transport the scrap to the pipeline area, sharing the rent of R200 for a handcart or R250 for a tempo.
“In the monsoon, work gets hit every time there is heavy rain, because mine is an open-air job,” says Khan.
By 11 am, Khan is engrossed in segregating his treasures with nimble fingers. He keeps at it till sunset, with an hour’s break at 2 pm for a quick lunch at home or at a roadside restaurant.
“Sorting is hard work, but I don’t mind it. What I hate is burning trash. That’s something we have to do in order to extract tiny bits of plastic embedded in other scrap, but I can’t stand the heat and the smell,” says Khan.
“Besides, if we don’t burn down useless bits, the whole creek will get jammed.”
By 7.30 pm, Khan and other recyclers band together again to transport bags of sorted plastic to another godown, where they will be broken down in a grinder and sent for remoulding into tiny bottles, a Dharavi speciality.
Khan sells each sack for just R10 more than his cost price, taking home an average profit of R200 a day and R8,000 a month.
“I don’t have a fixed day off, but I take a break once in a while to roam the streets with my friends,” says Khan. Then, shyly, he makes a reference to his 18-year-old wife, with whom he had a love marriage three months ago.
“I take her to the Mahim dargah once a month, or to the beach.”