From Madhav Badami, our professor of Urban Planning and Environment
This is my first blog post ever. Actually, I was meaning to blog a couple of weeks ago, in response to the BBC news item on e-waste in the city of Bangalore in India. Unfortunately, I was laid low by an attack of acute tendonitis, and I have been back on my feet only the last three days (it is like being born again, I can tell you).
Before I proceed, I wish to declare my motivations for blogging on this particular topic. First of all, I have a strong academic interest in policy-making for waste minimization; and I am particularly concerned about the growing waste problem in low-income countries such as India (I will get to why in a bit). Secondly, and at least as importantly, I spent some of my best years living and working in Bangalore. So, this is a city I care about. Bangalore is situated on the Deccan Plateau in the south of India, and because of its altitude, enjoys year-round temperatures that are significantly lower than in the surrounding plains. I have been visiting the city ever since the 1970s, and I can even now recall how very beautiful it was then — lots of greenery, broad sidewalks, and very clean (unlike many other Indian cities). And although it has deteriorated considerably because of rapid urbanization in the last couple of decades, it is even now considered to be India’s Garden City.
Now, about the changing waste situation in India. India began liberalizing its economy in the early 1990s, and ever since then, urban incomes and consumption have increased dramatically. Not only has consumption increased, the kinds of things that are consumed (and discarded) have changed as well. For example, electric household appliance use has grown by leaps and bounds (and so has energy consumption). Western fast foods, with all that they entail, have become popular, and the amount of packaging has increased. And so, just as consumption has changed (both in terms of quantity and quality), so also has waste. Waste in Indian cities used to be predominantly organic (food, yard wastes, and so forth), with very little non bio-degradable stuff, such as plastics. Recycling rates were very high, and the bulk of the recycling was done informally. For example, a chap would come to our house (and every other house in the neighbourhood) once every two weeks or so, on a bicycle, and pay to take away all the newspapers, and any bottles and cans that might have collected since his last visit. The newsprint would be (and still is) converted into packets for groceries, vegetables, and snacks. Very little was allowed to go waste. The only thing that was thrown away was food leftovers. Incidentally, most Indian households use stainless steel utensils and cutlery that are handed down from generation to generation (we do too, in Montreal, and many of our stainless-steel vessels come from my wife’s and my parents). And milk was typically collected in a stainless vessel in the morning, from the local dispenser (earlier, when I was a child, it used to be brought home by the local milkman, on his bicycle. )
But with the rampant consumerism in the 1990s, the amount of waste generated has increased, and the composition of waste has changed, as discussed. The share of non-biodegradable materials, and materials that either cannot be recycled or are very difficult to recycle, and hazardous wastes in the waste stream has increased significantly. Enter the computer industry. Simultaneously with liberalization in the early 1990s, the computer software industry started booming, mainly in Bangalore; this was in large part because over the past four or five decades since India gained independence, Bangalore had been the centre of several manufacturing and hi-tech industries (earth moving machinery, aircraft, electronics and telecommunications, precision equipment, and so forth), and the centre of higher education in the sciences. As the computer industry in Bangalore grew, it began to attract many major foreign multi-national computer firms (IBM, Sun Microsystems, and Oracle, to name a few). The city also became the headquarters of giant home-grown multi-nationals such as Infosys and Wipro. So much so that Bangalore has come to be known as India’s Silicon Valley. With this of course has come the problem of computer wastes that the BBC article talks about.
It is bad enough that municipal waste has been increasing dramatically in Bangalore and other Indian cities. These cities were already finding it difficult to cope, given the lack of infrastructure for waste collection and safe disposal. But the growth in computer wastes, and wastes from, for example, discarded mobile phones — it is estimated that two million units are being added every month, month after month, in India — has made a difficult problem significantly worse; and to add insult to injury, a lot of the computers used by people like us in the West end up more often than not in South Asia (and China), after we are done with them. All in all, a waste crisis. This is because many of the wastes from computers, mobile phones and other electrical appliances are hazardous, and if not treated and disposed of properly, can leach into groundwater and travel up the food chain.
As long as consumption levels were low, and the bulk of the waste was bio-degradable, the fact that infrastructure was inadequate was not a problem. But as the waste stream has become more complex and dangerous, more and more sophisticated and expensive technological systems and regulatory regimes are required to collect, treat and safely dispose of waste (note that sanitary landfills, for example, involve millions of dollars to construct, operate and maintain). Indian cities, given their meagre resources and multiple urgent priorities, simply do not have the wherewithal to put in place such measures. Also, as long as consumption levels were low, the population of Indian cities was not a serious problem. But just imagine the situation when you have 10-15 million people (as you do in some Indian cities), a rapidly growing number of whom are beginning to consume like North Americans, but with nowhere near the ability of North American cities to deal with the waste generated.
I would like to close with this one final point. The advent of the computer and software industry in Bangalore and other Indian cities has undoubtedly produced many socio-economic benefits — among other things, it has created tens of thousands of high-paying jobs, and generated vast revenues to the exchequer by way of corporate taxes, and billions of dollars of foreign exchange reserves. At the same time, it is causing negative environmental impacts, of which computer wastes are only one. With the growing incomes has come dramatically increased motor vehicle ownership and use, causing major traffic congestion and air pollution, and severely straining the already inadequate road infrastructure. And many low income people have been squeezed out of the land markets within the city, and have had to locate in the periphery, in areas not well served by transit, as real estate values and rents have sky-rocketed (it would be interesting to consider if a manufacturing industry with similar employment levels as the computer industry and located in the outskirts, would have had this effect).