Dumping on India

Rameshwari Devi sits in front of a pit of smoldering coal, roasting shoes. Plumes of acrid smoke rise from the oven as the plastic soles begin to melt. She coughs incessantly as she strips the soles and tosses them in a heap, discarding the leather uppers.

Devi, 25, is among the numerous workers in India’s “plastic capital,” a large, unregulated plastic trading center outside New Delhi, India which has now become the dumping ground for hazardous wastes of the West.

Two years ago, American companies sent 23 shipments—9 million pounds—of plastic Pepsi bottles to be “recycled.” Australia exported $1 million worth of used car batteries, while Germany often sends tons of high-quality plastic bags. Other countries ship lead, cadmium and other metal ash from foundries justified under the guise of recycling says Greenpeace activist Anne Leonard at a recent news conference in New Delhi, India.

But the reprocessing is done under primitive conditions. Lead acid batteries, for example, are stripped—mostly by children—using bare hands. “The workers do not wear any protective clothing or face masks,” says Dr. Iqbal Malik of the NGO Vaataavaran, who documented such recycling. “They breathe lead fumes as the lead is melted down in shallow pans. And it is done in poorly ventilated rooms because these ‘recycling’ units are mostly unlicensed.”

Workers at a reprocessing factory in Bhopal, India handled zinc waste without any gloves, according to Leonard. The groundwater around the factory was found to be contaminated with high levels of metals.

The earlier government justified such imports because they generate factory jobs. But the leftist government that came to power in June opposes many imports and may not encourage such “recycling.”

In April, India’s Supreme Court ruled on a public-interest lawsuit that all hospitals and nursing homes must incinerate medical waste. The government then called for global bids for setting up incinerators. That was good news for many companies, notably in the United States, said Dr. Paul Connett, a professor of chemistry at St. Lawrence University, New York.

On a recent tour of hospitals in India, Connett found many government officials had not been told about the dangers of incineration by companies that were trying to set up shop. India does not have adequate laws governing incineration and lacks an agency to enforce existing laws.

“The incineration of medical waste converts a biological problem into a chemical problem,” said Connett. Incineration generates dioxins, furans, chlorobenzenes, chlorophenols and other hazardous chemicals. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency says dioxins are among the most toxic chemicals known.

Two Western companies reportedly have offered to give 40 incinerators to India, apparently with an eye on winning larger contracts later, alleges Ravi Agarwal of Srishti, which has done a study of hospital waste incineration. He says many incinerator manufacturers who face opposition in the West are now keen to get into India.

Editor’s Note: Agarwal is still investigating and is not ready to reveal the names of the two companies.