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Letter From Delhi

The Economics of Trash

Courtesy Reuters

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

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