Waste trade: Is this right?

Waste is a resource for traders as they cannot afford to let it be burnt, but there is waste that cannot be recycled and has to be burnt

By Sunita Narain
Published: Thursday 13 June 2019
Labourers sort through plastic waste at the Tikri Kalan plastic waste depot in New Delhi. Photo: Vikas Choudhary
Labourers sort through plastic waste at the Tikri Kalan plastic waste depot in New Delhi. Photo: Vikas Choudhary Labourers sort through plastic waste at the Tikri Kalan plastic waste depot in New Delhi. Photo: Vikas Choudhary

I am looking at massive mounds of garbage, but with a difference. This garbage — from our houses — has been sorted, segregated and made into almost neat piles of different stuff. I am at what can be called Asia’s largest wholesale market of junk — located in Delhi’s Tikri Kalan — obviously on the outskirts of the city, because our waste must be out of sight and out of mind.

We then go to the Haryana side of the market, located in Bahadurgarh district, adjoining Delhi. Here again, there are mounds and mounds of sorted and unsorted garbage. While the Delhi market is formal in some way — the land has been provided by the Delhi Development Authority—the Haryana side is located on agricultural land.

I asked farmers why they had leased their lands for this waste trade. They pointed fingers at development, ironically called the Modern Industrial Estate. Here, they say that the industry has pumped industrial discharge into the ground through reverse boring. As a result, their groundwater is contaminated; agriculture is not possible. We could see chimneys and smoke from this “Modern” ground.

The pollution control board officials who were with us said, give us proof and we will close down industry that does reverse boring. It was a rhetorical question. Because just near the farms and coming from the factories, we could smell and see the massive drain full of stink and dirt. The same Haryana government has stipulated that its pollution board officials can only “inspect” an industry once in five years. Really rhetorical!!

So, the cycle has closed. This could well be called the perverse circular economy of our times — we produce waste and destroy land and livelihoods and then provide no option to the poor but to make a business out of this waste.

I was there with the chairperson of the Environment Pollution (Prevention and Control) Authority, as we wanted to understand the steps taken to ensure that waste is not burnt in the open.

The last time the chairperson, Bhure Lal, had visited the area, he found massive waste in the Mundka plastic factory area as well as in Tikri. He directed this waste be lifted and taken to waste-to-energy plants for controlled burning. It made a huge difference last winter.

This time, there was much less “waste” in the open. The fact is waste is a resource, as the traders informed us. They cannot afford to let it be burnt. But it is also a fact that there is waste that cannot be recycled, and has to be burnt. For instance, there are items like uppers of our discarded shoes or indestructible multilayered plastics that cannot be burnt.

But it is also undisputable that these markets, which employ the poorest of the poor, are the reason why we are not (yet) drowning in our own waste. These markets are built on the labour of the poor, who rummage through our waste, pick up the pieces of any value and then sell it to the recyclers. It is an informal trade but extremely well organised.

I was told the market sorts out some 2,000 different products and the value ranges between R5 and R50 per kg. The traders pay GST. So, the government earns from this trade, which should by all logic, be supported as it provides a source to the resource business and saves us from building landfill sites. We know nothing about this business, but we believe it is considered dirty. The municipal corporations will provide land for dumping waste, but nothing for its recycling. Where are the spaces for junk shops in our city plans?

But there is an issue that niggles and eats away my thoughts. What should be the right model for this waste business? Should we accept the fact that this trade provides livelihoods for the poor so it is good? That would mean that we should use more and reject more. Is this the way ahead? I ask this, not just in the context of Tikri, but the globalised world around us. Once China closed its borders on “foreign garbage”, recyclers have started looking for new countries to sell this waste. Is this the answer to our waste problem? Surely not. Let’s discuss this next fortnight.

(This editorial will be published in Down To Earth's print edition dated June 16-30, 2019)

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