Waste in the City

Patrick Geddes once said that the biggest drawback of modern civilization is that it lacks an understanding of waste. Our cities produce massive amounts of waste on a daily basis. All this waste has to go somewhere and we have only three sinks for waste, the earth, the water and the air. There is, however, also a fourth option: waste can be recycled. Indian cities are typically derided for being filthy, but Indian cities also have very high proportions of waste being recycled! This recycling is not taking place through large high-tech corporate industries. It occurs through the dispersed activity of a large workforce of rag-pickers who segregate the garbage that households and commercial establishments dispose. Starting from the rag-pickers, the circuit of waste is a sprawling network of individuals like kabadiwalas, small and medium sized recycling industries and buyers. This sprawling network of waste recycling is invisible to us because alot of it operates “informally”, some would say “illegally”. But all the bodies involved in this circuit of waste provide our cities with a massive economic and ecological subisdy. They firstly, absorb polluting waste into their own bodies and neighbourhoods, and they also breathe new life and value into waste so that it can re-enter economic circulation. This talk on waste will mostly focus on rag-pickers, but the discussion will also extend to the larger circuit of waste.