Professor Vikram Gandhi’s Immersive Field Course (IFC) “Development while Decarbonizing: India’s Path to Net-Zero" delved into the critical aspect of decarbonization and sustainability goals amid India's rapid development. The course presented an opportunity for students to advance their knowledge of sustainability efforts, decarbonization, and net zero in the context of a broader development agenda. The class culminated in a series of site visits in January 2024 in Mumbai and Bangalore and this is one of 14 student essays that highlights their reflections on uncovering sustainable solutions across the country.

The climate movement can sometimes feel like a distant battleground centered around vast and technical challenges like the energy transition. While critical, these issues can seem abstract and removed from our everyday lives. Waste, however, is an unavoidable crisis staring us right in the face. From overflowing landfills to choked waterways, the consequences of mounting landfills are impossible to ignore. This is why visiting Dalmia Polypro’s Dry Waste Facility in Mumbai during our IFC course was a revelation. A partnership initiative with Hindustan Unilever (HUL), this waste management plant is a fascinating case study of how the right capital, players, and process can tackle the waste crisis.

Hindustan Unilever, like other FMCG manufacturers, has historically faced criticism for its reliance on single-use plastics. The organization has recently made advancements to its role in the crisis, bringing forward investments, commitments, and partnerships that steer the industry toward a greener future. Among these include a $1 million early commitment to help build Dalmia Polypro’s material recovery facilities in Mumbai, such as the one we visited. These centers segregate, sort, and dry waste - including paper, glass, metal, and plastic - to send to a recycling facility that generates cleaned pellets repurposed for lower grade use.

Tackling Mumbai’s waste is no easy feat: the city generates 6,300 tons of refuse every day, and collecting and sorting the small amounts of recyclable plastic available in that huge stockpile is an operational marathon (1). Dalmia is doing this with a hub and spoke model, consisting of centralized sorting facilities (hubs) connected to various recycling facilities (spokes) that manage the inflow. The model seems to be working: in 2020, Dalmia Polypro recycled approximately 19,000 metric tons of waste, with plans to scale to 80,000 metric tons by 2025 . Their innovative approach not only streamlines the process but also creates a network of smaller businesses that collect, deposit and sort waste in this value chain, empowering local communities. Our visit to the facility stemmed three observations about the future of waste and plastic management:

1) Importance of Public-Private partnerships in solving the waste problem: Innovation in India requires coordination between private and public players, with an understanding of the various dynamics that exist at state, regional, and community levels. Each stakeholder has a role to play here. The government’s recent EPR (Extended Producer Responsibility) guidelines mandate that corporations like HUL play a role in managing its plastic waste. HUL brings patient capital and credibility to the project, alongside a reliable buyer of recycled plastic outputs that instill a sustainable edge to the project. Dalmia, an earlier stage company in the ecosystem, brings the infrastructure and expertise to process the waste. Lastly, waste pickers and sorters are employed from within the community to operate each plant , and nonprofit organizations aid in the underlying behavioral changes required to effectively collect more waste. Without the government’s regulatory framework, HUL’s investment and trust-building, Dalmia’s infrastructure, and the community’s willingness to help collect waste, this endeavor would not be possible. The initiative’s early successes have helped Dalmia scale: the US DFC committed $30 million in October of 2023 to help build a larger plastic waste facility (2). This exemplifies the kind of collaborative action needed to address the plastic crisis at scale.

2) A case for capitalism in advancing green efforts: Studying Mumbai’s waste management processes quickly uncovers the massive informal economy making this possible. Mumbai employs approximately 300,000 individual waste pickers who cover unofficial territories and waste types across the city. They operate within urban centers and landfills to collect waste, sort out the plastic, and help\ aggregate them for larger materials processing facilities like HUL and Dalmia’s plant. This fragile ecosystem is supported by effective supply and demand. Because there are entities like Dalmia Polypro setting a price for raw untreated plastic, and buyers like Hindustan Unilever committed to buying the processed recycled plastic, individual wage workers are supplying their inputs. Independent waste pickers make roughly 150 rupees a day collecting plastic, and workers in the plant make 400-500 rupees a day to sort and process for recycling. The market is in turn willing to pay roughly 100 rupees for each recycled pellet generated, helping create the entire value chain from individual waste picker, processing plant, pellet manufacturer, and ultimately the goods manufacturer using recycled pellets. A visit to Dharavi in Mumbai, one of the world’s largest informal housing communities, demonstrated how markets can be an effective lever for waste management in a huge way. We crossed a tiny recycling business, operating out of shop corner, which buys used carboard boxes from a waste picker who collects them from local households. The business in turn cleans and strips the boxes down to resell them to local businesses who use them informally as transportation and stock storage. Alternatively, these boxes may end up in landfills. This is the power of setting effective supply and demand: entrepreneurs, at every level, can rise to the challenge. It is up to entities like Dalmia and HUL to adopt, incorporate, and scale these efforts without leaving anyone behind.

3) Scaling won’t be easy, and the challenges are many: While our visit to the processing facility reinvigorated our optimism in what’s possible, it also unearthed the sheer number of challenges public and private players will need to address to scale the solution. On the consumer side, it was clear from the mountains of discarded sachets that education and behavioral change must lead the effort. Ultimately, recycling should be a secondary goal to reduction. Private players must make recycling their products easier, and bottoms-up initiatives can help train households on managing and sorting their own waste. Encouraging responsible consumption, promoting waste segregation at source, and investing in biodegradable alternatives are vital steps toward a circular economy. On Dalmia and HUL’s side, scaling the current plastic processing facilities requires significant investment and reliable long-term contracts for the increase in recycled outputs. Today’s policy framework and private player commitments don’t yet make that possible.

Leaving the Dalmia facility, we were left with a sense of both hope and responsibility. There is a vision for a future where waste is not a burden but a valuable resource that feeds our production and sparks stronger livelihoods. Responsibility, knowing that we have a role to play in shaping toward that future.


1. Pinto, Richa, “72.60% of Mumbai’s Daily Waste is Food Waste, Shows BMC Environmental Report”, Times of India, -60-of-mumbais-daily-waste-is-food-waste-shows-bmc-environmentreport/articleshow/104436106.cms?from=mdr, Oct 15 2023

2. Press Trust of India, “Dalmia Polypro to raise $30mn from US DFC to build facility in Maha”, Business Standard, anies/news/d almia-polyp ro-to-raise-30-mn-from-u s-dfc-to-build-facilityin-maha-123101800434_1.html, Oct 18 2023