Category Archives: Perceptions of Garbage

Survey Results

Thanks to everyone who participated in my survey. The  majority of you were from the US but there were respondents from all over the globe. Considering the highly scientific collection method and the statistically relevant response of 41 participants, I’m ready to make some sweeping statements about humanity’s relationship with trash.


Four of you said you would save these for storage or shipping. I'm disappointed, I would have said Fort Building.

Recycling definitely won the day. Over 85% of you said that you would put used cardboard and a plastic tub in your recycling. Now the cardboard was probably an obvious answer. But let’s think a little bit about the plastic bottle. Although many of you do not have this in your homes, these types of jugs are typically made from  polycarbonate plastic (#7) and are not recycled. In the past year PET jugs which are recyclable have increased but the US recycling rate for all PET bottles in 2009 was still only 31%.

Also consider this. Garbage in most legal and policy definitions is defined as something discarded, or which is of no further value to the user. So

Water Jug

Some creative thinkers in this group! One of you said you would save this jug to use as a penny jar. Another insisted he/she could use it to make beer.

even when you place something in the recycling, it’s still garbage! When I asked these same questions to a room full of Indian students and lecturers a considerable number of them claimed that they would sell the cardboard. And the water jug, which is in common household use, is in fact on deposit and would be traded or returned to the manufacturer. What does this mean? It means that in India cardboard is not garbage, plastic water jugs are not garbage because for the end-user they contain a monetary value.

Also interesting was your response to the question of a broken television. 6 of you said you would try to find someone to take it off your hands for you. Close to 50% would recycle their T.V. This is of course not an option in India. A used T.V. would be sold, hands down.

Finally, you are a very clean bunch. Over 30 of you claimed not to have dropped anything on the ground in the past week. Those who did confess to littering mentioned cigarette butts and food. One Indian respondent confessed to dropping takeaway trays on the ground. This is a great example of the litter problem that exists here in Delhi and across many other parts of the country. And it is something we can all reflect on. In the US we like to imagine that we are moving forward towards an enlightened and modern concept of waste. We keep our streets clean but we live farther away from our waste and fail to see the marginal value of our goods. When I was in Brooklyn I had a broken TV, in fact it’s probably still siting in my old living room. Because honestly, who in the US wants a TV that doesn’t turn on, has no power button, and doesn’t get a digital signal? Recycling, even re-using in this context often means shipping these products to, you guessed it, India!

Check out the actual Survey Results here.


I am conducting an informal survey on perceptions of waste. Please take five minutes to answer the questions. If you take any longer than that you are thinking too much.

Profile of a Rag Picker

This week with the help of Shalabh, aka wanderer extraordinaire, I went out to seek a few of the people who handle the trash around Delhi. That’s how I found myself sharing a bag of peanuts, served in a recycled magazine page, with Maya and her band of sweepers.

At first glance the street is a dump. Goats dressed in old sweaters and chickens wander between the bins and garbage bags on either side of the road, a dusty side street leading to a simple crematorium. At 2:59 pm the site makes a comedy of Delhi Waste Management’s sign claiming, ‘Zero

garbage zone 13 to 15 hrs.’ However on closer inspection Maya runs an ordered and cleanly operation. Segregated bags of waste are piled high and covered with a plastic sheet, waiting for the broker’s next visit. Although the day’s un-segregated waste is picked over by the goats, the garbage they dislodge is sure to be picked up soon. Maya sits close to the ground on a short stool. Surrounding her are five lounging men; aside from her husband, they are all sweepers hired by Delhi Waste Management, a city contracted company, to sweep the neighborhood streets and deliver their bags to the dustbins at this location.


Goats and chickens feeding on the day's trash.

About 65 years old, Maya has been watching over this street for 25 years.  She hails from a rural village just a few hours away from New Delhi, in Uttar Pradesh. After marrying she moved to this slum community of Begampur Harijan Basti in Delhi. Before claiming her corner Maya jumped around the city, working mostly with garbage. She eventually struck a deal with the neighborhood surrounding Begampur. In return for keeping the road to the crematorium clean, she would be allowed to use the space to collect and segregate the area’s waste.

Mam Chand with a sweeper

This was no easy job. Maya says that back then the road was a favored spot for street shitting. “The crap was up to here,” says Maya’s husband Mam Chand, waving his hand by his knee. To break the neighborhood of its bad habits Maya took to sleeping on the crematorium road. When residents snuck out to take care of their business in the cover of the night, she chased them down. She remembers, “I carried a big stick with me and would chase them and then ask them to pick up their mess themselves.”  Although she still sleeps in her makeshift home on the road, after more than two decades of guardianship the street is clear and no one is breaking the rules. However, just off the temple’s main drag and outside Maya’s jurisdiction, we found enough fresh material to convince us that her rule is far from obsolete.

Garbage waiting to be segregated

In exchange for her commitment to keeping the road clean Maya is spared hassling by police and no one is allowed to cannibalize her business. Her presence on the block is so strong that when the municipality built cement dust bins to collect the neighborhood’s trash, they built them next to her operation. When the municipality and then the contracted private firm set up their operations they employed the expert, Maya, to ensure that the area around the dustbins remained clean.  This turns out to be a big task as Mam Chand pointed out to us. Although he had cleaned the bins at the other end of the road that morning, there was already a solid mass of garbage collecting around the half empty metal containers. He says the neighbors used to be better about their trash, but with the coming of plastic bags and other disposable packaging people stopped caring about the value of what they dropped, and where there dropped it.

Maya and her husband live a life with one foot in the formal sector, but with little security.  According to Maya, Delhi Waste Management currently pays herself and her husband a total wage of 1000 rupees a month. In addition, they make 2000 to 2500 rupees/ month selling plastic bottles and any other valuable waste they can segregate to a broker from the company. The going rate for an unbroken glass bottle is 1 rupee but they don’t often find such valuable material. Their money is made in thin plastic and plastic bottles, 3 rupees/kg and 50 paise respectively. There is also a little money to be made selling the meat of their goats. And there are the chickens, Maya pulled back the door of what I thought was a stack of card board to reveal a comfortably roosting hen.

Although the prices of materials ebb and flow with the market, Maya says that wages have remained about the same for the last 10 years, and in fact were lowered from 1200 when the city contracted out. Maya and her band of sweepers suspect that much more money has been allocated to them but that it is lost in “brokering,” as she diplomatically referred to Delhi’s corruption. All in all it doesn’t add up to much. Mam Chand says, “we make a total of 3 thousand a month, its barely enough to keep two people going on food, milk costs 22rps a liter so that tells you how well off we are.” Although goat’s milk might help Mam Chand save some rupees,

Maya sleeps outside to protect the street and her garbage.

there are also medical expenses to consider, like Maya’s appendix operation which cost them 75000 rps. And there is their one child, a widow supporting three children of her own. Their daughter lives in another section of the city but often returns looking for help. “You have to support your kids,” says Maya with a heavy shrug.

Maya and her men are just a small piece of the many layered and complicated system of waste in India. Getting paid a wage brings them closer to a stable way of life, but it’s hardly enough to get by. Any changes to the system, such as the collection of unsegregated waste for waste-to-energy programs, or even a change in habits like better segregation and consumption habits on the part of residents poses a threat to their stability.

Despite this Maya looks over her road with proud resolution. It is her space. One of the young sweepers joked that she was Panchali , meaning a wife to all of them.  Maya was quick to respond, “I live alone here in the night. You come here and I’ll tell you whose wife I am. I have a dagger and I’ll drive it through you.”  With her wit and command it’s not difficult to imagine Maya in another setting, manipulating her self-built corporation from behind an oak desk and far from the grandmother that squatted on the wicker stool before us. But even without the trappings of an empire, she is still the boss and her life will pass on that corner, amongst the trash that is her legacy.

Garbage Around: What’s Wrong With This Picture?

Oh Nuts!

That’s right! There is no chocolate, or raisins , or anything else besides almonds. Before you declare false advertising and suggest I send Planters a note so that I can get free nuts for life, cool your jets. This is a re-used bag!  They were purchased from a corner store with the hope of actually finding real trail mix.

Once we became aware of the true contents of the bag, the store owner was kind enough to pull out cashews and other nuts packaged in the same way. He explained to us that a man, who he claims doesn’t have a number, stops by about once a week to deliver the nuts. His hesitance indicated either confusion on his part as to why we had any interest in who provides nuts or that the arrangement was part of the informal economy. I figure it was probably a little bit of both.

After some thought, here is what I think is the most likely scenario. Planters has a factory, either in the US or somewhere else in the world – could be India or could not be since Planters is not a big distributor here. At this factory there are sometimes mistakes on the assembly line. Our Trail Mix bag, which was very clean and crisp in appearance, also claimed to be “resealable,” which unfortunately  it was not. So long story short its possible that the Planters factory(s) sells its faulty packages to an outside dealer, which sells to another dealer, and so on, down the chain finally reaching the the informal nut packager in Delhi. Mind you, I have no proof to back this up and it’s only one of many possible cycles. Could be that the Planters bag was used and discarded, picked up, cleaned, and re-used.

By now you are probably thinking, “How very sanitary.” I’ve been reflecting on standards in India and the US. Personally I don’t see anything wrong with the use of defunct Planters bags for a cheaper market as long as the nuts are still clean. Well I ate them as did friends and not one of us is lying in heap on the floor of a bathroom, so far so good. But who knows that the next package will bring…

Garbage Around Delhi: Azadpur Mandi

Part of what I would like to do during my time in India is document and understand the Indian experience of waste.  Every society has unique taboos, limits, and allowances in its understanding of sanitation. Some actions are born out of necessity, others are habits linked to history and cultural logic.  In this post and more to come over the next few months, I will try to share some of my observations and questions with you.

As I navigate Indian waste systems I am also coming to understand the benefits and pitfalls of those in the U.S.  Unfortunately I cannot be in two places at once. So, if you see a picture or read something in this blog that you think has an analogous presence where you’re living (in the U.S. or elsewhere) please let me know, send me your photos and thoughts.

Waste piles in Azadpur Mandi

Fresh and Old Waste in Azadpur Vegetable Market

These photographs were taken in Azadpur Mandi, as far as I know it’s Asia’s largest fruit and vegetable market. Everyday farmers bring their goods to this market in Delhi, which are then auctioned off in bulk to brokers who then sell the goods to distributors and vendors. Most of the unwanted produce or discards, like garlic skin, stems, and husks are dumped in a few central locations. Asking around, I found out that this waste is sent to a vermicomposting unit not too far away. However it was clear from sight and smell that the back portion of the waste had been there for quite sometime. My guess is that the trucks removing the waste are only able to carry so much and that the remainder stays rotting where it sits.

Cow eats discarded veggies from the curbside

Cow Eats Discarded Veggies from the Curbside

Realizing that this was the market where all of our food comes from was a mixed experience for me and my roommates. On the one hand all of the food looks and smells wonderfully fresh, on the other hand things are sold, shucked, and shelled in view of the dumping grounds. In addition, waste is left along the sidewalk, between trucks, and just behind blankets with food for sale. It’s likely that sweepers are hired to collect garbage from the street when the market closes everyday, but in the meantime it attracts dirty cows and stray dogs.

The proximity of waste and (I forgot to mention) mud  is disconcerting for those of us who are used to fluorescent supermarket coolers and neat farmers market stalls. But in the end I had to be satisfied that, despite the look and smell of parts of the market, the good produce stays on, mostly, clean sheets. And on a positive note, a friend studying food distribution tells me that what happens before the produce gets to the market, while unseen, is much more likely to kill me anyhow.

Vegtable Sellers and the Azadpur Market

Vegetable Sellers and Processors at Azadpur Market

Vegetable Vendor in New Delhi

Vegetable Vendor in New Delhi

Cleaning a Mountain

As I set out on the 20 hour ride to Himachal Pradesh to volunteer for the Mountain Cleaners, I was already planning my return with a great little green travel piece. Something about the beauty of the Himalayas, the quaint district of Chamba, often passed over by foreign tourists, and a sprinkle of feel good earth-saving bull. Instead what I got was one smelly, wet, and tiring week.

Garbage is thrown in some pretty visible locations.

The annual Manimahesh Yatra (Pilgrimage) lasts two to three weeks. Hindu followers of Shiva hike, ride and fly to the holy lake, 4201 meters above sea level. I arrived at the tail end, witnessing the final surge in the 500,000 or more (still trying to get an official number) pilgrims making their way to the top. To put this into a global perspective, it takes $414,000 to maintain the still imperfect waste system and facilities for the 292,000 annual visitors to Japan’s Mt. Fuji. At Manimahesh there is typically no money allotted to general clean up and half a million visitors is considered a slow year.

Such is the weight of the task that the Mountain Cleaners undertook in their inaugural mission to the Yatra. My arrival brought the trash saviors of Shiva’s mountain to a total of nine bodies. Jodie Underhill, a small British woman with fly away blond hair and founder of the two year old initiative, was sitting alone with her dog, Toes, at Manimahesh Lake, snowed into her tent and suffering from a fever. Her one employee had just returned from the top at her orders, afflicted with his own combination of head cold and homesickness – at one month and 300 km this was the longest trip he had ever taken from his village.

My first few days were spent in the town of Bharmour. Here my new travel buddy Mike, a British standup comic/social worker in his late forties, and I sorted the waste from about eight bins set out around town. Although the bins were labeled for separate disposal, the message rarely got through and the inside of each metal can looked more or less the same. The idea was to separate out the saleables – plastic and glass bottles, thin plastic, dry paper, and metals. Though composting had been an original hope of the project it was quickly abandoned when the true volume of the waste became clear. The disposal method for non-recyclables, which in this context included snack and cigarette packaging, is as yet undecided. There is no landfill option available, so the town’s unrecyclable garbage usually ends up being thrown off the side of the curving roads in some pretty visible locations.

After taking a holy dip in Manimahesh Lake pilgrims often leave their undergarments on the banks. So, volunteers wore vests reading "Leave Your Sins Not Your Underwear"

Watching Mike and I sort waste quickly turned into a community event. Mike, with his grey hair, encroaching scruff and authoritative demeanor was the bell of the ball for the men of Himachal Pradesh. It got so bad that I was tempted to shout out, “Hey American Woman here… HELLO!!?” But instead I got out my camera and at the request of many a young gentleman took snaps of them with the Englishman. Our only requirement to take a picture was that the requestor put on some gloves and pick up some trash. Sort of like a kissing booth at the state fair but our slogan was, “Mere ko Kachra Do, aur Photo Lo” – Bring me trash and take a picture.

Hanging out in town alongside us was an Indian volunteer from Delhi and a complicated, alcoholic, recently divorced Swami who called all the girls darling and read palms – sparkling or tragic fortunes depending on his mood and whether you were laughing at him. During the night we all shared a room in the Bharmour Mountaineering Center’s hostel and the days were spent sorting waste and hiding from the rain under a shack built out of recycled Tetra Paks. Even Baba (the swami) for all his shortcomings was dedicated to the cause and had moments of valuable outreach and contribution to the effort. The village was in total party mode, with events like wrestling matches and concerts in the temple square every night, families sleeping together in every available structure and many more saffron-clad men wandering about. Alcohol was flowing in secret and marijuana was burning everywhere.

The Mountain Cleaners attracted a diverse group of volunteers.

After a few days I left the comfort of musty mattresses behind, strapped on my back-pack and headed for the mountain. Reaching the first camp site, the snowcapped peaks and expanse of the Himalayas surrounding me was incredible, as long as I only looked up. Looking down was breathtaking for a very different reason. At Manimahesh there was no informal recycling going on like you find in most of India. Garbage lined and padded the trail all the way up to Manimahesh mixing along the banks of the river with human and animal shit. Pits dug in preparation for the Yatra’s new waste collection system were filled with every sort of crap, metaphorical and otherwise. Cows roaming the mountain climbed into the pits and made themselves right at home. At this point I can only offer speculation as to the lack of activity from the informal recycling industry. Because Himachal Pradesh is a well off and removed state it might be that the incentive to pick up and recycle trash isn’t as strong. Then again it’s also possible that the pilgrimage is just too short to make for-profit collection viable.

For the rest of the week I lived in leaking tents in the makeshift city of Dhunchho (3056 meters), the only entertainment being the good company of the volunteers and an occasional lamb sacrifice. The food was the only real comfort in the whole trip. As a show of religious duty communities organize around one main benefactor to provide free food and chai to pilgrims along the entire road to Manimahesh.  There are hundreds of these lungars. They play music early in the morning and late into the night and provide constant support on the mountain for the entire three weeks. When we weren’t stuffing ourselves with lentils and rice the mountain volunteers continued our sorting ritual, picked up garbage bags from the lungars and shops and cleaned up the trail as much as we could.

Segregating waste on the Mountain

The most interesting part of the experience for me was the reaction of the Yatra participants to our collection efforts. While Jodie was often called a saint, the Indian volunteers were asked with astonishment how much they got paid and what caste they were from – which might explain why environmental groups like this struggle to find local volunteers and participants. As the trip wore on, my skin tanned and my hair developed a nice dark and straightening sheen so that I looked more and more like a local. When I walked down the mountain on the last day, a solo bottle collector, I was told that I was too pretty and smart to be doing this bad work. One woman asked first in Hindi then in English, “Who are your parents!?” I still don’t have an answer for that one. Some pilgrims didn’t understand why picking up trash was necessary since the river would just carry it away to the ocean. This is of course not the case, and even if it was it would still cause problems. However in general once our mission was explained, everyone was very supportive of the work we were doing. The lungars, who were all volunteers themselves, were the most helpful. Having recently switched to stainless steal dishware from plastic and paper, many of them were ready to commit to even further steps in coming years.

I left the mountain on the last day of the pilgrimage. The hundreds of shelters and stores that had lined my way up the mountain had turned into skeletons and for stretches of time it was just me and my plastic bottles. The quest to clean up Manimahesh will take many more years and much more than a few dozen volunteers. At some point the burden will need to switch to local bodies if there is to be any hope for a permanent solution. But it seems that the Mountain Cleaners are ready to re-load and start again demanding more support from the government and the community. Though their expectations were humbled this year, they made great strides in community outreach and a visible dent in the trash problem. I will certainly be rooting for them.

Volunteers at Dhunchho

Mountain Cleaners at Dhunchho


UPDATE (June 24th 2011) One of the Lodges that houses the Mountain Cleaners recently burned down destroying the groups equipment at Triund. If you are interested you can find out more about the fire and donate money for new equipment here: