#54 - In Delhi's slums, an unexpected solution to fast fashion
By Monika Mondal in Delhi, India
Clothes in Urmilla’s house go through a cycle. They change purpose and shape, and are allocated different space around the house. Once the garments are cherry picked from the stores, they are worn for several years and belong to the ‘almirah’ (the wardrobe). Then they undergo as many repairs as possible to keep them from becoming unwearable. After that they reach the “corner of the floor” stage— where they lie around as dusters and mops. And when they are finally completely useless, she turns them into art.
Urmilla Maurya learnt the art of converting old pieces of clothing into mats and rugs about three or four years ago. Sitting in one of the many unauthorised slum colonies of New Delhi — in Shyam Vihar, Najafgarh – Urmilla takes about 2-3 hours every week to finish one mat. “It dependson the size and design, but it's fun to make the mats”, says the 28-year-old. Urmilla is accompanied by other ladies on her street in making door or table mats and rugs from useless torn clothes. With precision they tear the cloth, turn them into long narrow strips, whirl them in a ball and use knitting needles to shape the mats.
Some years earlier, before the community’s women discovered the art of textile recycling, , most of the clothes piled up in the empty plots of the colony. “We would just gather the piles of useless clothes and throw it with other waste in the empty plot, or use them to stuff our pillows,” chuckles 50-year-old Meera, another artist and resident of the colony.
Most of the unauthorised colonies in Delhi co-exist with the filth, with no disposal unit for the rubbish they generate. Water from the drains spreads on the ground, garbage from kitchens and houses sits in piles at the street corners and eventually is burnt down to ashes when the area becomes too full. “This art at least saves the clothes from burning or [becoming] filth in the street. And since it gives a source of income, it adds icing on the cake,” says Tripti, who lives in Shyam Vihar and sells mats at a minimum price of 80 rupees ($1.1)
By creating 8,700 tons of garbage each day, Delhi ranks second in India after only Mumbai for solid waste generation, according to the Central Pollution Control Board, a government pollution watchdog. “For the last few months, a van has been coming every morning to pick up the garbage,” informs Meera. However, all the waste produced goes into the truck, with no segregation. Delhi has three waste to energy generation plants — in the Okhla, Ghazipur and Narela neighbourhoods, and one waste to compost plant is operational at Okhla. However, none of them has performed as expected..
India and other developing countries in Asia produce more organic and paper waste than most other nations, according to a World Bank report. This makes the combustion of waste difficult for the waste to energy plants, which perform best with dry materials that burn easily. Along with this, lack of proper management and technological capacity means India is unable to utilise the wet organic waste to produce manure or compost. In the absence of any waste segregation methods, the waste ends up on street corners or in the three giant landfills of Delhi — Ghazipur, Okhla and Bhalswa.
Textile is terrible
The textile industry releases about 1.2 billion tonnes of greenhouse gas into the atmosphere annually. “Depending on the fabric and the microplastic used, a textile item can take anywhere from 5-15 years to decompose”, says Sahadat Hossain, director of the Solid Waste Institute for Sustainability at the University of Texas Arlington. Recent studies found that microfibers from synthetic plastic-based textiles such as polyester, nylon, acrylic as well as cotton clothes have reached as far as in the Arctic ocean.
The textile industry has undergone tremendous change in the last two decades. With fast fashion becoming the trend, cloth production has doubled and clothes are worn 36% less as they used to be 15 years ago. “These local community initiatives are innovative and interesting, but for this to be successful, the volume has to increase,” informs Sahadat. “It is important that the communities are informed that their work is not only creative but also helps the world to be a better place.” he adds. “Communicating about the initiatives beyond their geographical region and making them talk of the town is how we address the component of social responsibility in climate change.”
If the pieces of clothes were not converted into mats, they would likely end up in the garbage piles. According to the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change, about 90% of the waste produced in India is collected, but only 20% is recycled. The rest of the waste is either incinerated or added to the landfill. Garbage heaps such as the 65 metres tall Ghazipur, compete with the highest structure in Delhi— the Qutub Minar mosque, which stands 73 metres tall in one of the most elegant neighbourhoods of the capital city.
The women of Shyam Vihar are unaware of terms like “waste management” and “climate change”, and they practice the artform of converting the waste clothes into mats as an age-old practice of reusing products as much as possible. Only a few decades back, many Indians and especially the middle class reused and recycled everything that they bought, from glass bottles to carton boxes. However, with the advent of fast fashion and adaptation to a more globalised world, what’s known in India as a “use and throw” culture is now widespread. With increasing wealth, a new social stigma around reusing or recycling products is changing the way Indians treat their waste.
Initiatives based on the principle of a circular economy, like that developed by the women of Shyam Vihar, have immense potential to address the current waste management crisis of the city as a whole, both by reducing the waste at hand and also nudging behaviours, encouraging people to question whether the things they throw away are really waste after all.
Monika is an independent journalist based in New Delhi. Her areas of focus are sustainability, environment and agriculture. More of her work can be found here.
This post was funded by a climate investigation grant awarded to From A Climate Correspondent by the European Federation for Science Journalism (EFSJ) and funded by the BNP Paribas Foundation.
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Must reads from the region:
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What else I've been reading:
My companion these days is "The good girls" by Sonia Falerio — a story about two teenagers who were found hanging dead from a tree one fine morning in UP, India. For me, the pages unfurl how gender violence and environmental injustice are entangled.
Who we are
From A Climate Correspondent is a weekly newsletter exploring the climate crisis from around the globe run by four journalists. We regularly feature guest writers.
Lou Del Bello is an energy and climate journalist based in Delhi, India.
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