Communities Field Note

The Problem of Trash in India



No matter where you go in the world, humans produce trash. In an ideal society, all of this trash would be dealt with in a safe, effective and environmentally friendly manner. This is not the currently what is happening in India. Read on to learn more about India’s struggle with solid waste.

How do nations meet their community’s needs?

Urban India produces 68.8 million tons of solid waste a year. That is 188,500 tons per day! Because the population is always increasing, that number is expected to at least double by 2050.

What community need did I learn about?

In Indian cities, trash is everywhere. There are piles of it by the side of the road and in ditches. Then there are the large dumping sites, where trash piles can be spotted as far as the eye can see. Trash cans do not exist except for in a few designated locations like shopping malls. The few trash cans I saw were in the shape of a huge rabbit or other animal with the mouth as the place where trash was deposited.

Dogs among the trash heaps in Madurai, India

During my time in Madurai, India, I went with an Environmental Studies class on a field trip to a garbage dump. The piles of trash were taller than me and were steaming in the humid air. Throughout the trash heaps, skinny dogs and cats could be found. Chickens scratched at the trash, looking for something edible. Cows and water buffalo wandered through the heaps with crows perched on their backs. The cows and water buffalo munched on mouthfulls of plastic. Children darted in an out of the trash heaps, playing what looked like to be a game of tag.

Why do communities have this need?

In India, the majority of items in a grocery store are packaged in plastic. Nothing is packaged in glass, partly because many people go barefoot. This is either because they are too poor to afford shoes or because of the cultural tradition of removing shoes in sacred places, such as temples. Furthermore, although a lot of people drink tap water, tourists and some wealthy people drink bottled water. These empty water bottles contribute to the abundant plastics that are thrown into the street. Despite all this, I do not remember seeing any plastic grocery/shopping bags in all of the places I visited in India. Instead, stores usually charge a fee and give out small cloth bags.

Children in an environment filled with trash

In the places I visited while in India, any sort of organized recycling program was unheard of. Unlike in the United States, where garbage collectors come and take away one’s trash, in India, people just deposit trash in the streets and eventually burn it. I always knew when trash was being burned, because it smelled horrible! However, it did clean up the streets, as all that was left after the trash was burned were ashes. All that trash was essentially converted from solid form to gaseous form. It is no surprise that the smoke from all the burning trash causes a lot of pollution in the atmosphere.

Another problem with the trash lying around is that water collects in the indentations on the surface of the trash. There small pools of water provide perfect breeding grounds for mosquitoes. This is a problem because in addition to being a nuisance, mosquitoes carry dangerous diseases such as malaria and dengue fever. In fact, Madurai is located in the state of Tamil Nadu, which had the highest amount of dengue fever cases in all of India in 2012. Nearly half of the students on my study abroad program the semester before I arrived got dengue fever. Dengue fever is a disease that is spread through mosquito bites and causes high fever and lots of pain. Furthermore, some of my friends opted to take pills that would protect them from getting malaria while in India. Malaria is another disease, like dengue, which is spread through mosquitoes.

A water buffalo with a bird on top

Is this need being met?

A pack of dogs in the trash heap

As part of a project I did with my study abroad program, I asked young people about their attitudes towards the environment. The overwhelming majority of young people felt very helpless when it came to dealing with the trash on the streets, and with cleaning up cities in general. Also, because they felt so helpless, they contributed to the problem themselves. They did this by throwing their trash out of the car or dropping it on the ground as they were walking. No one knew about any laws regarding littering, though they said that if such laws were put into place, like most laws in India, they would not be enforced.

One aspect of the trash problem in India that is not a solution, yet helps to reuse certain items, is the phenomenon of rag pickers. Rag pickers are quite poor and spend their days combing through trash heaps picking out metal, certain plastics, and other materials that they sell to companies that can reuse the material. Most rag pickers earn less than a dollar a day for their efforts. Many live in incredibly unsanitary conditions and do not have access to basic needs such as adequate food, water, and shelter. On the plus side, their presence does help a lot of material be reused that would otherwise stay in the landfill.

The National Waste Association of India collects data about the state of solid waste in India. They then work with the government to make policies regarding India’s trash problem. It is still unclear how much of an impact they make, as they are unknown to the general population of India. It is clear that India is in desperate need of more organizations working effectively to deal with the trash problem. We can only hope that in the coming years this will occur so that future generations have a trash-free environment in which to live.



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