The Indian men who make money selling trash

“Weekends are the busiest,” says Govind, surrounded by piles of trash, on a recent Sunday afternoon.

The 34-year-old, who prefers to go by his first name only, is standing in the middle of a scrapyard that he and his brother own in Gurgaon, a dusty suburb of glass and concrete near Delhi.

On his left are gunny bags bursting with paper. Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s face stares up from a stack of newspapers, and a hefty guide to the “Principles of Corporate Finance” lies on the ground. Then comes a mound of glass, plastic, metal and more – a quick glance throws up a can of Lacoste deodorant, plastic bottles of Coca-Cola’s Glaceau Smartwater, a brown suitcase and a few bicycles.

This is Shiv Scrap Dealers, owned by Govind and his brother, Joginder, seasoned purveyors of trash: for more than 10 years, they have been sifting through what other people discard to extract every last bit of value from it.

“The trash has changed over the years,” says 38-year-old Joginder, who was the first to start collecting scrap. “Everything is lighter, there is a lot more plastic than before and silver has replaced copper wiring, which is more valuable.” He says they make about 30,000 rupees ($432; £338) a month on average.

The yard shares a wall with an apartment building and leafy trees block the sun. Sheets of corrugated metal serve as a roof to protect paper and cardboard. Everything else lies under an open sky.

Since both brothers spend so much time here, there is a stove in the corner where they can make tea, and a bed where they take a quick nap or sleep when they stay the night. Joginder says they take turns to guard the scrap. He explains, with a touch of pride, that all of this – leftovers from other people’s lives – is worth thousands of dollars, a fortune in India.

Scrap dealers – or what Indians call kabadiwalas or raddiwalas – are at the heart of the country’s largely informal but robust recycling industry.

Most Indian cities do not collect waste door-to-door or even segregate it, says Roshan Miranda, founder of Waste Ventures, a waste management company.

But Indians are generating more waste than ever as processed food takes over kitchens, cheap electronics fly off the rack, and home delivery apps fill up phones. And a deep-rooted sense of thrift (the same one that has fuelled India’s famous “jugaad” or cheap innovation) has spawned a vast and indispensable network of informal waste pickers. India generates some 62 million tonnes by the government’s estimate, but there is no clear data on the workforce that collects, sorts and sells it.

Although Kabadiwalas have been around for decades, riding their rickshaws through neighbourhoods, Govind is a more modern version. He uses a backpack, drives a white van and runs a registered, tax-paying business.

He is tall, lanky and speaks languorously. He finished school but never went to college. He lives with his wife and two sons, 13 and 10 years old, in a neighbourhood about 15kms away. He started collecting scrap a few years after his brother.

He has just returned from his rounds of apartment buildings – Princeton, Carlton, Wellington Estate – on the other side of the national highway. The routine is roughly the same. Starting at 09:00 local time (03:30 GMT), he spends up to eight hours every Saturday and Sunday ringing the doorbell at hundreds of homes spread across 12 sq km (5 sq miles).

And he is greeted with a week’s worth of junk – stacks of books and paper; cardboard boxes from Amazon and other retailers filled with assorted plastic; a tangle of wires; metal in all shapes and sizes. He weighs it all and then pays up.

“In India, we have to buy everything to recycle it. In other countries, you have to pay someone to come and pick up recycling,” says Govind.

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