A different waste model


Should India import and reprocess the world’s growing mountains of junk and toxic garbage? Should this become our business opportunity, capitalizing on the fact that rich countries need cheaper and more efficient ways of dealing with their waste—everything from electronic to medical? The question is if we can manage the waste of others, even as we struggle and fail to deal with our own piles of garbage. 


There can be no arguments that the business of recycling is good for the environment. The Indian cement industry is cutting energy costs and carbon dioxide emissions by increasing the use of slag and flyash—waste from the thermal power sector. The global steel industry has cut emissions by using recycled steel in its manufacture. Similarly, the paper industry cuts emissions by using waste paper to make new paper. In the world, increasingly scarce of materials and energy, the reuse of materials will be critical, indeed essential. 


But the question remains how this recycling business will be run. The working conditions in the ship-breaking yards of Alang in Gujarat remain horrific. The recent case of radioactive waste from the scrap yards of Mayapuri in Delhi should teach us a lesson or two about the dangers of how this dirt business is run. 


The question also is if the answer lies in organizing and regulating this trade. Will that work? After all, the reason waste is recycled by the poorest in the world and the poorest in our country is because there is value in the waste. And they can process it cheaply and efficiently. Can big business replicate this success? These are the issues that need to be discussed and resolved, much before we become the world’s most favoured destination for waste. 


Take the matter of electronic waste. According to industry estimates, India produces some 400,000 tonnes of electronic waste each year—everything from computers to fax machines and mobile phones. But that does not stop us from wanting to import the waste of others as well. My colleagues researching this subject found that free trade agreements, currently being negotiated with the European Union and Japan, for instance, include provisions for these countries to dump their e-waste in India (see ‘IT’s underbelly’, Down To Earth, May 16-31, 2010). All in the name of trade. 


Currently, small and informal businesses run the market. They can provide value to each customer—so waste becomes a resource; they can do this because they work in the worst of environmental and safety conditions. We found sweatshops—to reprocess our junk—being run from homes where both people and the environment are exposed to dangerous toxins. 


The way ahead, the government says, would be to regulate this business and transform it into a modern and clean operation. The draft e-waste management rules are built on this principle—a producer of computers and other e-waste has to collect the waste at the end of the product’s life; dismantlers and recyclers will have to be registered with the government to ensure compliance. 


But this model of organized dirt business is not what it seems. My colleagues’ investigations took them to the first company, licensed to import e-waste for reprocessing in a swanky modern plant, in Roorkee town. They uncovered—through some undercover investigative work—that this company is running a flourishing business, not to reprocess the imported waste, but to resell it in the Indian market, if the price was right. Everything, from computers to fax machines was on display. 


It can well be argued that there is nothing wrong with this. We are a country specializing in second-hand trade and so, we are just markets for goods rejected by others. In environmental terms, extending the life of a product cannot be bad. 


But this is not the term under which the company was given its licence to operate. The fact is that this organized business could well become the way for more and more junk being imported into the country, which is then still outsourced to the poorest and the most unorganized, for reprocessing. After all, the costs of pollution have to be discounted if we want to keep our competitive advantage in the garbage business. In other words, we must rethink the model of the waste industry; as I said earlier, we drown in the toxic junk of the world. 


We need to think how we can build a new model for waste managers. Instead of thinking of replacing small, cost-effective garbage collectors with big business, we have to think how policy can legalize, regulate and even pay for this trade to happen, not out of sight, but under our noses. But more importantly, we have to think how each company and each consumer must be made to pay a price—cess for recycling and disposal—so that we begin to bear the burden of cleaning up the mess we create because of our consumption. This will also force us to begin to pay the real price of disposal of waste. If we are made to pay more to throw, we will also learn to throw less. This is the way of the future business. Not use-discard-and-forget.