Tuesday, October 27, 2009

The Trouble with Trash (It's not the imported condoms we should be worrying about)

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.


  1. Tehelka carried a similar report last year about how all kinds of hazardous and muncipal wastes were mislabelled 'waste paper' and shipped into India.
    And as recently as this month, a ship loaded with toxi PBs was found illegally entering Alang.

    We do have laws in place, just very little implementation. Every municipality is supposed to ensure proper waste segregation yet how much do we see around us. let's not even begin to talk about biomedical waste management, despite coherent legislation on the matter.

    Another issue regarding imports - such shipments pass through customs first , not any arm of the evironment ministry. So revenues (not to mention bribes) are more the focus here than environment. We are already famous for poor coordination among ministries, so there is little wonder our customs will allow just about anything in, unless someone blows the whistle.

    Ewaste, as also mercury in CFLs is certainly a serious issue . Electronics and light bulb manufacturers abroad have strict take-back polcies and other recycling measures in place, municipalities levy tippig fees on their disposal .. all things we have failed to follow.

    regarding the waste paper, the sad truth is that importing waste paper, regardless of its condition, works out cheaper than attempting to organize waste paper collection and sorting domestically. It is also considered to be of better quality, and goes back into local paper manufacture, so I see the paper lobby strongly resisting any efforts to curb imports.

  2. As some of us saw in your earlier post on "The story of stuff", this is exactly what happens - the most objectionable bit is where our land is used for their trash.

    But in my opinion, here is the killer statement in your article:

    "in their quest for short term profits, Indian businesses are importing way too much trash from abroad" . I always have a problem when we try and define a business in terms of a single number - profits. Before you think this is just another rant on corporates, hear me out.

    If I manufacture fabric, I can make it a variety of ways. I can do the right thing and do it cleanly without ****ing up the environment or I can do a poor job and dump my mess into the rivers. Either way, I can manufacture fabric and have a choice while still achieving my goals. But the moment I say "I want to maximize my profit" - well then there's just one way to do that!

    The moment we start obsessing on numbers instead of the business, there's only one thing that's going to happen. Because we're going to want to maximze those numbers no matter what. So as soon as we hear "I want to maximize my profits", it's all over and there's no need to read the rest of the sentence.

    In the case of trash, why won't Indian companies do what they're doing now? There's no point asking them to be moral! Since there's no one person in charge in a company, no one has to bear the entire moral burden. Corporate citizenship is all very well but this sort of citizen has no conscience!

    But what's the solution to all this? Government regulation? Maybe - if it didn't cause much damage to the economy, maybe the govt. would do something. Otherwise the Government is interested in profits and the economy too. The best hope for India is probably the judiciary which is one of the most independent in the world - they don't have to care about profits and can go about doing the right thing instead.

    A strong environmental minister with clout might help too, as well as proper media coverage. That just might get people upset enough for the Government to start feeling the heat. So two options alone - The courts, or the media. Without either of these getting involved big time, I'm afraid there's no hope.

  3. @wordjunkie: really nice to see you here. I think you add some needed depth to this discussion. I'm not sure there is really anything all that bad about importing paper--it's better than cutting our forests--as long as it's paper we get, not trash. And I think the problem is that sometimes we feel so frustrated by the lack of enforcement of laws that we throw up our hands and say, NO PAPER, because we think that's the only way we can stop POISON. I'd rather see us say, NO POISON and figure out a way to enforce that. I wonder if @Bhagwad points us in an interesting direction: the courts. I tend not to think of courts as the answer to most problems. But I do think that in the context of a broader social movement and awareness, sometimes the courts can push things along a little faster than the government might be willing to push. Absent of that, they tend to weigh n and then back out: a few years back they went all out against illegal constructions in Delhi--even had a mini mall or two knocked down--but that got quiet relatively soon. (They also displaced a lot of poor people, of course; I think the mall demolition may have been about looking "even handed." That's an old story.)

    @Bhagwad, Interesting points. I agree business is not typically going to act morally for the sake of morality. I think effective regulation is really the only solution. And as wordjunkie points out, we've got a lot of good laws on the books, at least regarding importation of trash. (Though that is only part of the picture, we all agree). Enforcement is the tough part. The government does need to make this a priority; how to make that happen another question. Let's keep thinking about it. BTW, I retweeted a thing on animal rights you might be interested in; I ran out of room or I would have mentioned you.
    cheers, HB


What do you think?