Across India, from poor villages to expensive residential areas of cities, millions of trash pickers are at work to collect what other people dispose. They are called raddiwalas, ragpickers, scavengers and waste managers. Some go door-to-door, others gather iron rebar and used bricks on construction sites, still others clean parks and city streets. There are even specialists who gather hair, which is exported in bulk for wigs. They’re the starting point of a multilayered, $25 billion industry in India that advances through increasingly specialized middlemen and industrialists to eventually turn garbage into new objects. The work is a moneymaker for conglomerates as well as a route out of poverty for some of India’s poorest people.
All of that has been upended by a crash in a global garbage market dominated by two players: China, which buys most of the world’s garbage, and the U.S., which sells the most. Last year, China dramatically cut the amount of garbage it buys. The reduced demand from China and continued supply from the U.S. flooded the world trash market and drove down the price of garbage everywhere….Indian recycling companies took advantage of the deep discounts and started importing more trash from the U.S. and elsewhere. In 2018, the imports of mixed scrap plastic to India rose 33%. The jump in supply pushed prices down for the low-end Indian workers who pick through mountains of locally produced trash for raw materials to sell.
That’s impacting an Indian trash economy powerful enough to have prompted its own migration pattern: thousands of families left their rural villages to collect garbage in cities. Now, with their garbage hauls worth less, many are returning home. For the pickers, the going price for a kilo, or 2.2 pounds, of plastic water bottles, which used to bring around 45 rupees—roughly 65 cents—is now worth only about 25 rupees—or 36 cents.The trash glut also lowered profits for industrial recycling companies who turn the trash into usable materials. Plastic pellets, the end-product after processing some plastic scrap, went from 80 rupees to 45 rupees a kilo.
China ratcheted up restrictions on imports of recyclable materials to force its recycling industry to absorb more of the waste generated within the country. China also is nudging the country away from the role of accepting others’ garbage, which is viewed as a dirty industry. The global trash glut means India’s own trash is worth less to its domestic recyclers.
Excerpts from By Eric Bellman and Vibhuti Agarwal, ‘We Are Swamped’: How a Global Trash Glut Hurt a $25 Billion Industry, July 28, 2019