The anthropology of plastics in India

Doctoral candidate Adwaita Banerjee uses ethnographic research to document the ecological transition of the Deonar dumping ground, where thousands of Dalits and Muslim migrants mine the area for plastic that can be resold and recycled.

Plastics accumulated in a sewer in India.
Children play in a stormwater drain clogged with plastic waste. (Image: Sidharth Chitalia)

On the western edge of Mumbai, far outside the glinting sheen of the rising skyscrapers, near the tidal flats that mark the city’s ebb into the sea, lies the Deonar dumping ground. Mumbai started sending its waste to this outpost in 1927, making the dumping ground one of Asia’s oldest and largest. It spans more than 326 acres, or about 247 football fields filled with mountainous refuse that fragments, decays, and occasionally goes up in smoke.

Dotting the fields of discarded plastic are about 2,000 people, mostly Dalits and Muslim migrants, who mine the area for plastic that can be resold and recycled. Waste pickers measure their longevity and status by the access they have to more lucrative forms of plastic and by how far they live from the dumping ground itself. Here, life expectancy is around 40 years of age.

On Jan. 28, 2016, the dumping ground caught fire. The air quality index in Mumbai registered as hazardous, 435 parts per million on a scale that goes to 500. The blaze raged for nine days. Taxpayers were alarmed. Waste pickers died. Other waste pickers were accused, fined, and jailed, suspected of starting the fire in their hunt for metals. Access to the dumping ground was shut down, leading to income loss for the rest of the waste pickers, who were already living on thin margins, says Adwaita Banerjee, a doctoral candidate in anthropology and a 2024 Dean’s Scholar.

At the time, Banerjee was a student at the nearby Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS), hoping to become a documentarian. The Institute is just under four miles from the dumping grounds, about 16 minutes by car, an hour by bus, or 20 minutes by the auto-rickshaws that Banerjee took to the site. He was working in communities around the Deonar dumping ground as a volunteer when the fires broke out.

Banerjee made his first film about the 2016 fire. “We didn’t see the sun for three days,” he says.

“The area around the dumping grounds in the M-East ward has always been spoken of in terms of lack,” Banerjee says. “They die early, they have all these problems, nobody wants to go there, it can’t be fixed, and so on and so forth.” But somehow, people were making life happen. Banerjee wanted to know what kind of resilience or adaptability leads people to not only go on living but also find meaning in a life where the mechanisms of survival are so difficult and constrained. He wanted, he says, to understand “how we make life amongst death.”

An image of people picking through a dump with a handful of skyscrapers along the horizon
Children inspect plastic waste in a scrapyard with skyscrapers on the horizon line. (Image: Sidharth Chitalia)

Banerjee has his own resilience and adaptability. He is the only child in a Bengali family, originally from the city of Kolkata in eastern India. Because his father worked in security for banks, mines, and all sorts of “very precarious kinds of locations,” the family moved every year or so, Banerjee says. “I had to grow up all over the country, learn different languages.”

For some, this might be a traumatic origin story of a childhood as perennial outsider. Banerjee offers up these facts cheerfully, almost as a badge of resilience, the way an army brat might. It exposed him not just the to India of his birth but to the entire country. He’s seen things other people haven’t. He knows things other people don’t.

“I have always felt I get my anthropological skill from that,” Banerjee says. “I find myself extremely happy in contexts where I have to learn things about certain kinds of people, how they react to things, how language is spoken through the body or how they refer to people,” says Banerjee, who also speaks Bengali, Marathi, Hindi, and English. “You have to quickly make friends, understand how that works, be aware of how hierarchies work, how spoken and physical languages work.” Then, he would have to move and relearn a new city’s mores, adapting once again.

Still, Banerjee’s choice to study filmmaking—and later, anthropology—was a risky venture. “If you grow up in India, you’re expected to either be a doctor or an engineer,” Banerjee says. It’s an ongoing debate in his household.

“I think you’d be better placed if you were in a STEM field, if you could do something more effective,” Banerjee’s father will say. “What do you do, talk to people?”

But narrative is potent, Banerjee says. Stories can empower people, institutions, regimes, empires, and stories can tear them down again to rubble.

After graduating from TISS, Banerjee spent two years working in the Urban Resource Center for Youth for Unity and Voluntary Action, a Mumbai NGO, while continuing to visit the Deonar dumping ground and working for anthropologist Jonathan Shapiro Anjaria, who helped Banerjee think about urban ethnographies and how Mumbai’s space is organized.

Banerjee decided to pivot into academia and in 2020 was accepted to Penn. “He’s a capacious thinker and thinks very differently across disciplines,” says Nikhil Anand, Banerjee’s adviser. “He’s thinking about plastic waste but also in terms of the kinds of lives and worlds plastic use makes possible.”

A woman in an orange sari walks through an informal settlement, dragging two large plastic bags with her.
A waste collector walks through an informal settlement (Image: Adwaita Banerjee)

Anand, the Daniel Braun Silvers and Robert Peter Silvers Family Presidential Professor of Anthropology and associate faculty director at the Center for the Advanced Study of India, is an environmental anthropologist who studies the political ecology of cities by looking at water.

Situating dumps just beyond city borders is an established practice, Anand says, a deliberate way of shielding city dwellers from the effects of their own refuse. Locating dumps in wetlands—as Deonar is, just as Boston and New York City have—is a deliberate way of avoiding the regulations of both land and sea, Anand says. Wetlands are also where city planners house refineries and rehouse marginal populations, he says.In this respect, wetlands at the edge of the city are vital sites at which urban inequality is made and sustained.”

But yesterday’s hinterland is tomorrow’s center. “Historically, we’ve noticed that urban wetlands have been made valuable through this waste work,” Anand says. “Fires are a way of reterritorializing space. Many have long suspected that fires in slums have historically been deliberately set so as to create new possibilities for urban space.”

The 2016 fire in the Deonar dumping grounds was not an accident, Banerjee says. Before the fire started, watchtowers and walls were being constructed. After the fire, it was closed for a few months, and, when it reopened, “the system completely changed,” he says. Most workers did not return. Those who did had networks and connections and were able to obtain the new necessary ID cards issued by the site contractors, he says.

When Banerjee tried to gain entry, he was told, “Even if you were the president of the United States, we would not allow you in.”

Officially, Deonar is closed. In practice, waste is still being produced. It still has to go somewhere. During the pandemic, Deonar was put back into circulation.

“I asked the municipal commissioner why the system was so broken,” Banerjee says. Mumbai “is a city of 22 million people, and the number of waste workers is at 30,000. He said this is the best we can do.”

Yet Mumbai is currently in the middle of a transition away from the Deonar dumping ground, away from the single-use plastics that end up in sites like these. “The actors that I am most interested in are the waste workers on the ground,” Banerjee says, and how they navigate the ecological transition out of plastics.

Initially, the state said it would support the transition, with international actors coming in with additional funding, Banerjee says. Now, the conversation centers around creating viable business models with self-sustaining methods for collecting and selling, he says.

“It’s kind of scary because the state at this point is letting go of things, and it is also a time of great opportunity. In these very experimental times,” he says, “what’s going to happen is a big what if.”

Regardless of what happens, Banerjee will be there with his camera to document, to interview, to research. There are gaps in the fencing, he says. There always will be.

In the foreground, buses, cows, and people idle along a dusty road. Fenced off in the background are the brownish green hills of the unused dumping ground.
In Mumbai, the hills of the Deonar dumping ground near a bus depot are covered in green top.  (Image: Adwaita Banerjee)