The streets of India's major cities look dirty, piles of waste rot in the corners of buildings, and plastic bottles crunch underfoot. But the grit hides an informal waste collection system so effective that, despite an increase in the sale of disposable, non-organic consumer goods in India in recent years, the trash that ends up in the hands of municipal garbage facilities is over 50 percent organic -- that is, mostly food waste. In 2009, food scraps made up only 21 percent of non-recycled waste in the United States. India's ubiquitous trash-pickers may seem to some an unfortunate byproduct of Western-style consumption, but where others see garbage many Indians see opportunity. In an informal glass market in Bangalore, I was offered three rupees for a green glass bottle. By selling three bottles, I could have earned enough for a local bus ride.

The country's informal recycling sector, however, can only generate so much profit. It is constrained by its lack of capital and long-term investment. The country must work to upgrade and formalize the industry in order to both meet growing domestic needs and capture a greater share of the profit in the international secondary resource market.

The trash industry is worth about $410 billion worldwide per year. The scraps it yields are valuable in the production of consumer goods, as construction materials, or to provide a hedge in case primary resources, such as steel, become more expensive or harder to procure. In fact, in 2007 and 2008, the market for used scrap metal and paper mirrored and then predicted the market for raw material. Many of these secondary resources, such as used paper, are regularly and legally collected in developed countries and shipped overseas. Products Americans buy could very well be packaged in materials made from newspapers they discarded. Electronic waste, which contains bits of copper and gold, is also extremely valuable, especially in India, which is the world's largest consumer of gold.

In 2004, the country reaped around $1.5 billion from scavenged domestic electronic waste -- including circuit boards, motherboards, and computer chips -- and recently recorded over 330,000 metric tons of domestic electronic waste produced annually. Meanwhile, China currently processes the bulk of globally traded electronic waste, and India's recorded imports of it stand at around 50,000 metric tons. However, given the informal nature of the garbage exchange, the real number is likely much higher.

Of course, processing all that waste is a dirty business, and it can also be dangerous. A visit to one off-the-books processing facility left me feeling a bit ill. It could have been the sun or the harrowing trip to the remote facility -- or it could have been the unfiltered smoke billowing from the smelting oven and the green sludge that seemed to cover everything. Nevertheless, the facility's manager proudly walked me around the grounds, encouraging me to take pictures along the way. Many of the women grinding blocks of soda on stone to prepare the circuit board wash, which removes solder flux residue and contaminants from the boards, wore gloves and masks. But those who were actually washing the circuit boards -- a much more dangerous task because of the direct exposure to heavy metals such as mercury -- were not at all protected.

Beyond humanitarian motivations to end such working conditions, there are economic reasons to do so; healthy workers work better and longer. Parents who live to see the latter two-thirds of their life do not leave orphans that the state, relatives, or the streets, must take care of. Yet it is difficult for informal businesses to make long-term investments in worker health. Before such businesses can be expected to maintain safety and pollution standards, they must be welcomed into the fold of official, regulated business.
 
To be sure, Delhi would like to rein in the recycling industry and has already made moves to do so. In May 2011, the Ministry of Environment and Forests developed a new set of electronic-waste laws that would bar the use of certain toxins during production, expand electronics producers' responsibilities -- companies such as Dell would be held responsible for recycling any of their products used in India, for example -- and set up state approved procedures for processing. The rules also create a bureaucratic framework for the recognition of recycler associations and cooperatives, but they do not go far enough toward supporting or investing in the development of such groups.

For their part, informal recyclers should want to enter the mainstream, too. If they entered the fold of organized trade and processing -- paying taxes, upgrading their equipment, and creating opportunities for investment -- they could apply for international health and safety certifications and gain access to the regulated domestic market. The larger and stronger the regulated market grows, the stronger that incentive would be. A visit to E-Parisaraa, India's first government authorized e-recycler, showed me how basic some of those safety measures would be. Providing workers with gloves, masks, and simple tools like wrenches and chisels and keeping fire extinguishers handy (as you would in any work space) are just a few of the easy changes that can be made. Others, of course, would be more difficult. Providing isolated chambers and machines for the dissembling of phosphorous screens would be expensive, yet would be necessary to improve worker health. On the most rudimentary level, however, formal recyclers face a stickier challenge: convincing workers to use the safety equipment they provide.

Even within India's small, formalized e-waste processing sector there is a great deal of wealth lost. None of the facilities that belong to it meets international standards for full circuit board processing, so many end up selling them to other processors, such as Umicore, a processing plant in Belgium, to be mined for valuable resources. Even E-Parisaraa sells electronic components to Belgium. P. Parthasarathy, the company's founder, told me that the best thing that could happen would be "to empower [the informal sector], train them, educate them, and monitor them." He suggested that a standardized system of international trade would be the best way to ensure a clean and robust recycling business in India, calling for "a global solution with longer-term impact."
 
European organizations, especially the German aid NGO Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit, have been particularly generous in providing India aid for formalization initiatives through the Indo-European E-Waste Initiative. The goal is to strengthen EU-Indian cooperation on best practices, policies, and technologies. Still, representatives from Saahas, an Indian waste-management organization, told me that they would not support open international trade in the near future, explaining that the country is not yet ready to police domestic processing well enough to ensure worker and environmental safety.

Indeed, if electronic waste scavenging and processing is ripe for formalization, India's ship recycling port at Alang, in the east Indian state of Gujarat, serves as a reminder that domestic government regulation alone is not always a guarantee of good stewardship. Alang is the largest such facility in the world and employs 40,000 people. It is owned by the government but leased to private companies, and, according to G. K. Basak, an executive secretary in India's Steel Ministry (which oversees the steel and iron industries), it provides more than a third of India's ferrous scrap, or about 3.5 million tons per year.

Last January, I decided to visit Alang. When the permits to do so failed to materialize, I made the five-hour journey south from Ahmedabad to the coast anyway. The road to Alang is lined for miles with scrap metal, engines, furniture, cutlery, and anything else that can conceivably be pulled off a ship. The ship breaking process has created a recycling economy of scale: one of the area's vendors sat busy at a sewing machine and explained that he was reupholstering chairs taken from an airport so that they could be installed in a new a hospital. From one perspective, this is recycling at its best.

Still, the yard is constantly criticized for rampant violations of India's pollution, safety, and labor laws. A 2006 report by India's Ministry of Environment and Forests revealed that one in every six workers at the port suffered from asbestos-related respiratory diseases, and the fatal accident rate was found to be two in every thousand workers. Due to increased attention and activism in recent years, most workers in the port refuse to talk to reporters. However, one 17-year-old boy with delicate features agreed to talk to me. He was working at a shop that sold furniture taken from the ships, but had previously worked in the shipyard -- a job he started at 12. He shrugged as he recounted his time there. "I worked inside the shipyard for two to three years, cutting metal with fire torches" he told me. "I moved here because they pay me better here and the work is easier. Also the work hours are not as long."

According to India's laws, Alang should not exist. Yet both the state of Gujarat and the central government support it; it lines many politicians' pockets and fills state coffers.

Indians already recognize the value in waste. It is now up to the central government to create incentives for efficiency and healthy practices in the recycling industry. Even if formalization increased the cost of processing, India would still have the advantage of cheap labor and land over other waste processors in the United States and Europe. If the states of e-waste and ship-breaking in India show anything, of course, it is that standardization will not be an easy task.

To make global market regulation possible, the international community needs to stop treating recyclable trash as a toxin and recognize that it is a powerful commodity. There is no official international definition of what constitutes waste. A generally accepted one is something that is discarded or valueless. But a discarded ship that is sold for breaking in Alang has a very specific value, both as a purchasable item and as a resource for secondary materials. Likewise, discarded electronics may be used in other countries or scavenged for valuable parts. Legally, it is unclear where the responsibility for such waste lies.

The Basel Convention on the Transboundary Movement of Hazardous Waste is the broadest international agreement that regulates the waste trade. The convention oversees the transportation of any hazardous substance for disposal, from mining discards to nuclear waste. In recent years, the agreement has come to cover the movement of hazardous substances through the recycling trade as well, including ships and electronic waste. Although India is a full party to the Basel Convention and therefore subject to its laws, the convention lacks teeth, since the United States, the largest waste exporter in the world, has not ratified it.

The Basel Convention is also hindered by its basic mission, which is to control the movement of waste across borders, not to regulate the garbage trade. In the developing world, waste is intrinsically tied to production. The world's largest producers of commercial goods and construction, in addition to gutting their domestic waste resources, are also the largest importers of waste, which they use to feed those industries. So it seems logical that the principles governing trades in consumer products should also govern the trade in waste. The International Labor Organization has set basic standards for all workplaces, for example, that an employee must be 18 in order to engage in hazardous work. Although a nation must be a ratified member of the child labor convention to be punished for violations, a regulated market for recycling could take this standard even further by denying waste material to a company that does not uphold it. If the markets for trash became more transparent, regulators would be better able to ensure that recycled materials do not cause more harm than good.

The International Ship Recycling Convention of 2009, which will come into effect in 2012, may prove a good model for regulation. The convention calls for ship breaking to be carried out only in ports that meet set rules for safety and environmental protection and creates an internationally regulated market for ship recycling. The convention misses key environmental marks, in particular the need to end open beach processing, in which a ship is run straight aground and then dismantled in the open. It is likely that the sponsoring body, the International Maritime Organization, will face pressure to strengthen its standards going forward. Still, currently not even one of the world's major ship-breaking yards are able to meet the convention's standards, and further investment from the world's major ship owning countries will be required to change that. For its part, Japan, which owns the largest maritime fleet in the world, has indicated an interest in bringing India into the convention so that it can legally send its old ships to Alang.

There will always be a dirty story to tell about waste management. Garbage dumped in landfills pollutes, trash burned poisons the air, and recycling happens too little or is unregulated. Producer responsibility and consumer awareness campaigns have done a good job of spreading information about the dangers of the end-of-life processing of everyday products. But embargoes on the export and import of waste for recycling, which many green movements advocate, will not stop the longer-term trend toward a global waste trade. The need for materials and the availability of cheap processing will continue to govern and encourage the movement of the developed world's garbage to the developing world.

Policing the market is the best way to ensure the standardization of safety and pollution laws across the globe and safely grown the industry, especially in India. It would also place emphasis on preserving recycling where it exists rather than shutting processors down. There are a number of avenues through which standardization can be achieved. Producers can design products with more consideration of the end of their lives, making them safer to dismantle. Waste producers, be they individual consumers, companies, or the governments representing them, should invest more money in finding and supporting good waste processors in the developing world. If the international community and awakening consumer populations in India demand cleaner waste processing, a supply chain will develop. India can continue to have a robust waste industry and improve worker and environmental health. However, that will require time, money, patience, and the support of a globalized system.

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  • RACHEL LEVEN studied waste management in India as a 2010–2011 Fulbright-Nehru grantee. The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of the Fulbright program, the State Department, or TERI University.
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