Noah Sachs uses the years-long Bangalore garbage crisis to ask some pointed questions about America's secretive waste-disposal industry, which treats the treatment of American waste as a military-grade secret, protected by barbed wire and vicious lawyers.
Bangalore's drowning in rubbish, it's contaminating the water and poisoning the Earth, tens of thousands labor in filthy, unsafe conditions to sort and recover it — and the average Bangalorean is only generating about one pound of trash per day. Americans throw away seven times that amount, and the fact that it's whisked away doesn't mean it's not a problem. In Sachs's view, the Bangalore situation just makes visible the lurking consequences of America's own profligacy.
As Bangaloreans consume more luxury items, the composition of the city's garbage is changing—from food scraps and organic waste 20 years ago to mountains of plastic today. During the afternoon leg of the Trash Trail, we set out to explore this new frontier of plastic, which is processed by workers in Bangalore's informal garbage economy. Roughly 60,000 people make their living collecting, sorting, and recycling materials—entirely outside the city's formal waste-collection process.
The massive market known as Jolly Mohalla is the epicenter of this churning economy of plastic. There, I spoke with Mohammed Humayun, who has run a tiny, storefront plastic-recycling operation for more than a decade. He knew the daily trading price for every type of plastic imaginable. Plastic bottles command the most money, at 25 rupees per kilogram, while plastic packaging and polyethylene sheets are worth only four rupees per kilogram. Outside his shop, women sort discarded plastic by color for 12 hours a day, while teenage kabadi walas, or household-trash collectors, continuously arrive on bicycle. Balancing giant loads on their bikes, these boys bring recyclable materials from all over Bangalore to Humayun's store and others just like it. (In India's garbage sector, women do most of the backbreaking work of sweeping streets, collecting waste, and sorting plastic, while men dominate the wholesale business of weighing and buying the recyclables.)
Garbage Everywhere [Noah M. Sachs/The Altantic]
(Image: Noah Sachs)