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Sunita Narain: A different waste model

Sunita Narain

The new waste management model should require each firm and each consumer to pay a price for recycling and disposal
Should India import and reprocess the world’s growing mountains of junk and toxic garbage? Should this become our business opportunity, capitalising on the fact that rich countries need cheaper and more efficient ways of dealing with their waste — everything from electronic to medical? The question, however, is whether we can manage the waste of others, even as we struggle and fail to deal with our own piles of garbage.
There is no denying the fact that the business of recycling for reuse 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 manufacturing process. Similarly, the paper industry cuts emissions by using waste paper to make new paper. In a world where raw materials and energy are increasingly becoming scarce, reuse of materials is critical, indeed essential.
But the question remains how this recycling business will be run. 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 the way this dirt business is run.
The question is whether the solution to this problem lies in organising and regulating this trade. Will that work? After all, the reason why waste is recycled by the poorest in the world is that there is a value in it, and the poor 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 every year — everything from computers to fax machines to mobile phones. But, that does not stop us from wanting to import the waste of others as well. My colleagues who are researching this subject have 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 on us — all in the name of trade.
Currently, small and informal businesses run this market. They can provide value to each customer — so, waste is a resource — but they also do this because they work in the worst of environmental and safety conditions. We have found sweatshops — to reprocess our junk — running from homes and thereby exposing people and the environment 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 life of those products and dismantlers and recyclers will have to be registered with the government to ensure compliance.
My colleagues have found that this model of organised dirt business is not what it seems. Their investigations took them to the first company licensed to import e-waste for reprocessing in a swank modern plant in Roorkee town. They uncovered — through some undercover investigative work — that this company was running a flourishing business, not to reprocess the imported waste, but to resell it in the Indian market. Everything from computers to fax machines was on display, if the price was right.
It can well be argued that there is nothing wrong with this. We are a country specialising in second-hand trade, and so we are just markets for goods that are 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 organised business could well lead to more and more junk being imported into the country, only to be outsourced to the poorest and the most unorganised for reprocessing. After all, the cost of pollution has 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, much before we drown in the toxic junk of the world.

We need to think how we can build a new waste-managers model. Instead of thinking of replacing small, cost-effective garbage collectors with big business, how can policy legalise, regulate and even pay for this trade to happen, not out of sight, but under our noses? But more importantly, 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 paying the real price of waste disposal. If we pay more to throw, we will also learn not to throw more. This is the way of the future business. Not use, discard and forget.

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