This week, we are talking trash about trash!
Today, we'll look at Indian companies' growing appetite for imported trash, and the problems this hunger causes. Some credit for all this trash talk goes to the October 24th issue of Tehelka, where you will find a pair of interesting articles on the subject. We'll save the story about toxic ships for Thursday; today we'll start with Tehelka's "exclusive": "Dumped--Why do we buy the world's trash?" Unfortunately, this article seems so hell bent on finding "an angle that will sell" that it ends up doing a sloppy job of covering a very important story.
The magazine opens with the scandalous-sounding idea that one Indian company is importing used condoms of all things. Apparently, there is good money to be made in turning surgical gloves into PVC doors and other rubber products. But a South Indian company called Excel has allegedly discovered that you can do much the same thing using recycled condoms. Excel has run afoul of local authorities for not properly reporting these imports. Tehelka's sources suggest this has been going on for some time; Excel is known locally as "the company that deals in used condoms." Tehelka quotes a local source as saying, "you find them [condoms] strewn all over their premises. The stench is unbearable."
This sounds disgusting. But, in fact, it is highly unlikely that Excel's imported condoms were used in the way implied by this article; it is much more likely that they were simply rejected in the manufacturing process because they were flawed. You see, unlike surgical gloves, which hospitals world-wide collect for disposal (and potentially for recycling), no one anywhere has a separate section in their recycling bins for "used condoms." In fact, according to this American expert, most people either throw their used condoms in their neighborhood park for little kids to find, or (if they have any sense of decency at all) simply wrap them in a tissue and throw them in the trash, making it almost certain they will end up in a landfill, not in a load of recycling bound for India or China.
In fact, for the past two years, recycled condoms have been the subject of at least one urban legend circulating on the web. It's even been picked up by some news outlets who don't check their facts well (careful, Tehelka, or this could be you!) According to this legend, Chinese factories are turning used condoms into hair bands. Some reports even cite a "local dermatologist" who claims you claim you can get AIDS from wearing these hairbands. This sounds scary, except for the fact that you cannot even get AIDS from sitting on a western style toilet seat, much less from contact with a condom that has been shipped around the world and reprocessed into a hairband! Month-old, used condoms are disgusting, but your daughter would not get a sexually transmitted disease by wearing hair products made from them.
In any case, as I argued above, it is highly unlikely that anyone is collecting used condoms for recycling. Companies are almost certainly buying rejected (faulty but sanitary) condoms in bulk from condom companies who practice good quality control; in fact, there is probably a similar story behind the surgical gloves. Yes, these rejected gloves and condoms are most likely being reprocessed into many things, including hairbands and door frame parts. The urban legend-busters over here agree with me, by the way, and if that, along with your common sense, doesn't convince you, I'm not sure what will. Oh, and by the way, anyone who has spent anytime on a rubber farm knows that raw latex has an aroma that is unpleasant to the untrained nose; processed latex has an odour as well. Tehelka's local source is not lying when s/he says the condoms stink, but that doesn't mean they've been used.
Cracking down on a few loads of mis-declared condoms may be sexy, but it's not getting at the real problem. After spending far too much time trying to make a story about trash...trashy, Tehelka gets around to making some important points about the real problem: in their quest for short term profits, Indian businesses are importing way too much trash from abroad. In addition to condoms and rubber gloves, shipping containers currently being detained by local authorities in Tamil Nadu contain a lot of other nasty stuff, including oil cans and metal waste soaked in oil. What's more, this material is being imported by companies ill equipped to deal with it safely. Now that's something to get upset about!
Tehelka goes on to report that India imports a huge amount of "waste paper"--16.8 lakh tonnes in 2005-2006 alone. Recycling paper products from the West has both advantages and disadvantages. Unfortunately, it seems, much of this "waste paper" is also mis-declared: it is just trash, plain and simple-- and it gets buried in our landfills and dumped on our farmlands. That's another thing to get upset about.
To make matters worse, government officials recently granted permission for a recycling plant that could handle up to 8,000 metric tonnes of imported e-waste.
E-waste contains small amounts of valuable substances, such as gold and platinum, so it is full of profit potential, as long as you don't have to follow strict environmental and safety standards. It is also very, very toxic; it contains lots of things like lead and arsenic that will poison people today and for years to come if not handled properly. Recycling and dumping e-waste is very difficult to do safely, which is why rich countries like to send it to poor countries where pesky things like environmental and health protections typically don't cause so much of a bother.
Today, I'm not going to make an argument about whether or not we should import recyclable paper or even recyclable gloves and condoms; that's a more complex question than it might seem. The activists that Tehelka talked to are probably right that companies are using their ability to import recyclable material as a cover for importing trash--which can be quite lucrative. On the other hand, done correctly, recycling generally does more good than harm. Should we put an end to that industry because we can't figure out how to pass and enforce laws to regulate it? I'm not so sure.
But we do need to understand that that the trash that ends up in a landfill is almost always a dirty business, and we have no business importing it. It takes up farmland, it pollutes ground water, and in some cases it leaves poisons that will have long term affects on future generations. In the case of imported e-waste, the trace amounts of precious metals that might be recovered from it do not justify the cases of cancer and birth defects that it will surely cause. Let the West recycle their own used computers; we have plenty of our own deal with.
Perhaps the most compelling reason for the government to strictly ban the importation of trash is that we already have plenty waste of our own, and we don't do a very good job of dealing with it safely. I'm not even going to give you a hyper link for this one, it's so obvious. How often do you see kudawallas wearing gloves and other safety equipment? What about the workers who clean blocked sewers and drains--sometimes by hand? Would you let your child swim in, much less drink from, your local river? What do you imagine happens to the mercury contained in the millions of florescent lights we use each year?
Is there any reason to believe we will do a better job with someone else's waste than we do with our own?
If all this talk about trash is makes you a little sick, good! We should be grateful that Tehelka is covering the story at all. Too bad they buried it beneath a pile of relatively harmless condoms.