India / Other / Southeast Asia

Waste Not, Want Not

One of the first things I noticed about India (and Nepal for that matter) was the incredible amount of trash and waste lining the streets, overflowing from the dumpsters, being trifled through by stray dogs and carelessly tossed out of car windows by travelers.

It’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking that there is much more waste in India than America because you certainly see more day-to-day than you do in the US. It’s easy to think that the infrastructure here is weak so local governments and private companies can’t manage to keep all of the waste off the street. To think that it’s an eyesore and a sign of underdevelopment.

But there’s so much more to the waste situation here than meets the eye.

Personal v. Public Space

First off, there is a very different societal idea of hygiene and cleanliness here. In my house, and I imagine much of America, we judge our cleanliness by the cleanliness of the place where we live–big scale. I think I live in a clean place, because in my town in Massachusetts, the garbage man comes to take our trash away once a week. Because I don’t see trash on the streets downtown when I go to get take-out food. Because I don’t encounter much trash in my daily life when I am out and about. And I take pride in that.

While, my room in my house might have clothes scattered all over the floor and my spot at the kitchen table might be overflowing with paperwork–I would still tell you confidently that I live in a clean place because my town itself is clean.

In India (at least in Pune) there is a very different perception of cleanliness. In Pune, people judge cleanliness by the place where they live–small scale. Although public spaces quickly pile up with trash and you can’t walk down a street without passing through a pungent patch of garbage-scented air, people’s homes are immaculate.

When I first moved into my Pune home, my host parents gave us a serious talk about keeping our rooms neat and tidy and about the importance of making our beds every morning. Each day, a maid comes to our house to sweep the floors, wash the steps, clean the dishes and wipe down all the surfaces of the house. It is constantly in this sparkling clean state, ready to take guests.

When I enter the house, there’s a distinct shift from public space to personal. I leave my dirty shoes on the porch. They’ve touched the public ground after all and who knows what kind of dirt of germs I might track in. Once I’m inside, I forget about the trash I saw outside that morning, it’s clean and smells nice inside my house and that’s what matters.

By Indian standards, I also consider my home here clean because my private, personal space is clean although the public space may not appear to be.

Public Space and Garbage Collection

Fine, so India’s idea of hygiene is different from America’s. You’re onboard with that. I can tell. But you’re still wondering about the trash all over the streets. It sounds gross to you and you wonder how India’s garbage collection system could be fixed so that public and personal spaces could be clean at the same time. You’re wondering how they could institute a garbage-collection system along the lines of the US or Europe. You’re thinking that would surely make things better. Who does it hurt if there is less trash on the streets?

In fact, it actually might do quite a bit of harm. And there are a few reasons why I wouldn’t want India’s garbage collection system to look like America’s.

For one, the United States produces 20-30 times more waste per capita than India (largely due to the amount of package food and goods we purchase and discard of). And because we don’t often have to deal with our trash beyond putting it out on the curb for collection–it’s stunningly simple for us to produce mountains of it without feeling like it is effecting us or our country.

Here is another statistic for you. The United States has a recycling rate of 8.2% mostly from citizens’ own initiatives to recycle personal waste. India, on the other hand, where you couldn’t find a recycling bin if your life depended on it, has a recycling rate of 50%.

How is that possible?

Waste Pickers

On Tuesday, a representative from the organization Swach came in to talk to our study abroad group about waste pickers in Pune.

Waste pickers are all over the city and are an incredible example of the massive informal economy in India. They are self-employed and self-motivated people (mostly women) who sift through garbage in its various stages–people’s personal garbage, town-wide dumpsters, and landfills. They pick out what is recyclable and compostable and sell the products to a middle man for income. The remaining unrecyclable garbage, they transport to the landfill.


Once upon a time not so long ago, waste pickers were seen as thieves by society. They were stealing from people’s garbage and what was to stop them from stealing from their homes as well? These women waste pickers would be routinely abused by the police and generally disrespected by most of the population for the work that they did.

They were not appreciated on a large scale by any means until they began to unionize and regulate their business.

Swach (Solid Waste Collection and Handling) was a driving force for the unionization of waste pickers and in the past decade or so the organization has helped waste pickers by providing them with uniforms and identification and by speaking on behalf of their cause and explaining to the people of Pune why their job is so critical.

Besides the environmental factors. Swach sees waste pickers as a wonderful alternative to the privatization of garbage collection. They believe that privatization, while effective to get trash off the streets, is considerably more expensive, less environmentally friendly, and gives citizens an easy way to ignore the waste they are producing.

Instead, Swach wants people of Pune to be aware of where their waste is going. As part of the waste pickers’ jobs they will sort through trash they have collected in huts along the street. Right in the public eye.

Waste Not, Want Not

I can say with confidence I’m much more aware of my waste in India than I have ever been in America and a lot of that has to do with its presence in my day-to-day life and the fact that everyone here has at least a cursory understanding of where their waste is going.

I’ve probably acknowledged and thought more about trash here in the past month and a half than I have in the past 21 years in America and I think there’s something wrong with that.

Maybe we all need a little something to shake up our perspectives every once and a while. To get us to think about private and public spaces differently and to challenge us to entertain the idea of alternative models of infrastructure.

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