India: Buried in garbage

An Indian ragpicker walks among heaps of rubbish at a municipal waste dump in Dimapur on April 22, 2013, on World Earth Day.

NEW DELHI, India — The signs of India's garbage crisis are everywhere.

In the slums of New Delhi, piles of refuse slated for recycling tower over the shanties.

In the posh colonies of the wealthy, so-called ragpickers — who make a living selling scrap metal, glass and other recyclable items — pull garbage out of primitive concrete enclosures to sort it on the street.

They cast aside anything they can't sell, while stray cattle and half-wild dogs wade through plastic bags and bottles to root out kitchen scraps.

On highways and city streets, potato chip packets and betel nut wrappers blow in the wind, clogging up rain gutters just in time for the monsoon.

It looks like hardly any of the stuff makes it to designated dump sites.

But the real emergency remains out of sight.

New Delhi’s 16.75 million people make it one of the biggest cities on the planet, and their combined waste is massive. The city generates nearly 10,000 tons of garbage — equal to the US average weight of about 5,000 cars — every day.

That volume is expected to double over the next decade or so.

Yet the city's four dump sites — most of which aren't sophisticated enough to be called landfills — are already overflowing.

At the Ghazipur dump site, in East Delhi, for instance, ragpickers scramble over a pile of filth that towers 100 feet or higher.

And while experts estimate the city will need some 500 acres of new landfills to process the city's mounting waste, only 100-odd acres have been targeted for waste-management projects, and even those sites have been delayed by India's notorious problems acquiring land.

“If you go to Ghazipur on a summer day, it's unbearable as soon as you get out of your car,” said N.B. Mazumdar, senior technical adviser at IL&FS Environmental Infrastructure & Services.

“You feel a blast. You feel as if you are inside an oven. The dust, the smoke, the heat. And there inside you will find so many ragpickers, from children to old people, rummaging through waste. What is this? This is hell!”

Outside the capital, the problem might be even worse. Last year, citizens across the country protested against the garbage pileup — with the villagers of Vilappisala, in Kerala, lying in the road to prevent trucks from adding to a dump site they say has dangerously polluted the local aquifer.

Burning trash remains one of the largest sources of air pollution, despite mushrooming factories with little monitoring from the Central Pollution Control Board, and the overflowing garbage contaminates water sources and breeds vermin.

In Mumbai, for instance, failure to collect garbage has contributed to the growth of a huge population of stray dogs, drawing leopards from Sanjay Gandhi National Park into urban areas where they maul and sometimes kill poor slum dwellers.

Leopard attacks are only the most exotic way that garbage can kill. Across India, rabies resulting from stray dog bites accounts for 20,000 deaths a year.

Meanwhile, trash fires are responsible for about 20 percent of Mumbai's air pollution. Every year they spew into the air some 2,500 times the amount of toxins emitted by all 127 of France's waste-to-energy plants, according to a recent editorial by Ranjith Annepu of the Global Waste to Energy Research and Technology Council.

No doubt the situation in other cities is as bad or worse.

Some hope may be on the horizon from public-private partnerships and new initiatives to make money from waste.

For instance, an IL&FS composting plant in Okhla, an industrial neighborhood of southeast Delhi, processes about 200 tons of garbage per day, reducing 80 percent of it to humus-rich fertilizer that is badly needed in India due to low carbon content in the soil. (This year, the plant earned about $50,000 worth of carbon credits under the United Nations' Clean Development Mechanism in the process).

In Ghazipur, IL&FS has ambitious plans to build a new waste-to-energy plant that will slowly eat away the massive tower of trash. And the company is seeking ways to supplement the incomes of 450 small local dairy farms with a biomass plant and to provide better housing for about 375 slum families associated with the Ghazipur flower market and other local cottage industries.

Similarly, other Indian companies such as Arora Fibres, Hanjer Biotech Energies and Cerebra are tapping the never-ending flow of garbage to manufacture packaging material, generate “refuse-derived fuel,” or RDF, for use by cement plants and other factories and mining thousands of tons of electronic waste for precious metals.

But there are massive hurdles to overcome.

Municipal governments are loath to raise property taxes to finance projects that could turn garbage into a renewable resource. Thousands of city garbage collectors shirk their jobs, while sharp-eyed, motivated ragpickers — potentially the most valuable resource for sorting-dependent units like the Okhla composting plant — remain “self-employed” and hungry. And the recent plunge in international prices for carbon credits has made it virtually impossible for either composting or waste-to-energy facilities to make a profit.

Perhaps worst of all, precious few Indians have realized that the country's garbage culture has to change.

“On the one hand, we've progressed a lot in different fields. We use the best gadgets. We want the best comforts,” Mazumdar said.

“But on the other hand, we just don't look at the waste basket in our kitchen, or what we're doing when we litter the streets. Behaviorally, we don't tend to be responsible enough.”