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Dangerous recycling poisoning India

Terry Friel in New Delhi

Indians are shying away from World Trade Center scrap steel shipped to the country to be recycled, afraid its history makes it "inauspicious".

But it may be more than that, it may be lethal. The potential dangers of the Trade Center scrap, which environmental groups say is contaminated, highlight a poisonous paradox confronting the world's largest recycler: recycling is not always good.

Critics say India has become the developed world's dumping ground, rapidly poisoning itself and its billion-plus people with toxins from both the waste and the pollution from the sometimes dangerous methods used to recycle it.

Every year, India imports millions of tonnes of plastic, steel, other metals and discarded computers to break down and re-use, often with unskilled workers ignorant of the risks.

The world's second-most populous country combines low wages, lax environmental laws and a huge domestic market for the recycled products, says Suneel Pandey, a researcher with the industry-funded but independent Tata Research Energy Institute.

"Environmental regulations are really not there," he says. "There are no rules."

There is no reliable data either, which makes measuring and regulating the sector almost impossible, say industry officials, researchers and environmentalists alike.


About 70,000 tonnes of scrap steel from the World Trade Center was shipped to India before it was stopped by objections from environmentalists and unions, says Greenpeace India.

Greenpeace says the scrap is contaminated by asbestos, polychlorinated biphenyls, plastics and the lead, mercury and other contaminants in the computers and fittings inside the twin towers destroyed on September 11 last year.

A preliminary study in India found no toxins, but Greenpeace and other environmental groups question the study's accuracy.

Regardless, Indian scrap dealers are now having trouble selling the WTC steel for other reasons.

"People are having some reservations. It's a sentimental matter," said O P Bajpai, an adviser to the Indian Steel Alliance lobby group. "In India, it's a matter of belief," he said, refusing to comment on other issues about the WTC scrap.

Recycling employs millions of Indians, many at the bottom of society who would have difficulty finding other jobs, and turns millions of tonnes of domestic waste into useful material.

But industry and environmental groups also share concerns that much of the recycling is actually "downcycling" -- turning out a product of much lower quality than the original.

"It is not happening because people are environmentally conscious," says K P Nyati, environmental management head for the Confederation of Indian Industry, the peak industry group.

"It's happening because it makes economic sense. It's profitable. Recycling is a nice term, but essentially it's downcycling -- you lose quality."

He said the confederation was working with industry to improve the recycling sector to lift quality and cut pollution.

"We are aware of the problems and we are trying to do something about it. We need to turn environmental threats into economic opportunities," he said.

Part of the solution is for the industry to think of recycling as part of the production process, using materials that are easy and clean to recycle and which minimise or reduce quality.

Greenpeace, for its part, wants the industry turned around, with waste-producers paying for disposal to make better and safer methods economical.

"The people who created the waste should pay for the waste," says Greenpeace head G Ananthapadmanabhan. "There really is no money in the system for state of the art (technology).

"I don't think, given the environmental standards in the developed world... this could be done at home."

But large and medium scale industrial recycling accounts for less than half of India's total recycling.

The rest is done through kabadiwallahs, celebrated by the India Today newsweekly last month as "one of the world's most efficient and low-key systems", in declaring it one of the 55 top achievements of India's 55 years of independence.

Kabadiwallahs are India's army of worker ants -- men, women and children who stream out of their cardboard slums each dawn to scour the gutters and streets for useful trash, from foil medicine packets to rags, plastic bags, glass and iron.

The trash is brought back to the slum where, among huts made of cardboard and plastic sheeting and lanes lined by black rivulets of sewage, it is sorted, weighed and packed to await buyers from recycling factories.


The work is hard, dirty and dangerous, but in a country with one of the world's highest rates of poverty it pays better than some other menial jobs, such as cycling a rickshaw.

"There are lots of dangers," says Mohammed Babul Sheikh. "We fall sick very often. We get skin rashes, fever. But, then, we are poor -- what difference does it make?"

Like many kabadiwallahs in New Delhi's Mehrauli, Sheikh, who thinks his age is about 42 or 45, fled Bangladesh -- then East Pakistan -- as a child after the 1971 India-Pakistan war.

But he is one of the luckier kabadiwallahs. He runs one of the Muslim slum's 29 warehouses, a grand term for basically a patch of open space, a crude tripod scale and a storage hut.

On rainy days during the monsoon, he brings bags of his more valuable trash, such as rags, into his single-room, double-bed sized shanty to shelter with his wife and three children.

Sheikh has five people working for him, his eight-year-old son among them. They leave the slum about four or five in the morning and collect about a tonne of 53 different kinds of waste materials, from plastic to bottles to iron and rags.

His profit? About Rs 100-120 ($2.07-$2.48) a day.

"The money is better here," says the former rickshaw puller. "I have no regrets."

But he worries his children are doomed to the same fate.

"I am a parent. Which parent doesn't have good expectations for his children? But what can we do? There is no other way."

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