The river of rubbish at the Green Recycling in Maldon, Essex, says the award-winning journalist Oliver Franklin-Wallis, is “an awful sight” but leaves him mesmerised: his eyes catch “a single discarded glove; a crushed Tupperware container, the meal inside uneaten; a lone photograph of a child, smiling atop an adult’s shoulders.” Franklin-Wallis’s journey around the world of detritus, which he chronicles in his new book Wasteland, takes him to landfills and ghost towns, sewers to secondhand markets. It takes him to Ghana’s Kantamanto that sells second-hand clothes, branded ones, better known as Obroni wawu, or ‘dead white man’s clothes’, much of which goes to dumpsites.
And it brings him to India. Here he visits Delhi’s Ghazipur landfill, “a mountain not of stone, but of garbage — 14 million tonnes of it”; the Yamuna where he watches “suds whipped into airy peaks blanket the surface, colliding and breaking apart like a collapsing ice floe” from sewage, wastewater from textile factories and paper mills; and noxious tanneries in Kanpur. Garbage, Franklin-Wallis as points out, has made its way beyond terra firma: it has colonised ocean depths, where sea turtles are trapped in six-pack rings; and space, where fragments of old rockets swirl. Excerpts from an interview:
India features prominently in Wasteland. Why does it remain the world’s dumping ground despite the ban on the import of plastic waste?
I was interested in writing about India because as an economy going through explosive growth and change, it is one of the global frontlines for the waste crisis: whether that be plastics, industrial pollution, or the state of the Ganges. That fact is growing industries always need material, so it’s inevitable that waste ends up imported there. The challenge is making sure that it’s done safely and in line with environmental regulations. That doesn’t seem to be happening yet.
Isn’t it a supreme irony that towering, toxic landfills — such as the 65 metre-high one at Ghazipur in Delhi that you visited — are livelihood for impoverished waste pickers like Anwar, who court sickness and even death to earn a meagre wage?
Waste pickers exist in large parts of the world, but the reality is that they only exist in countries that don’t have well-developed waste management systems. There is so much the world can learn from waste pickers, who understand the economic and environmental value of our waste. India should be using its skills, providing long-term employment for waste-picking communities. That’s happening in some cities and regions but not all, and in Delhi, much more needs to be done to support these communities, who provide an enormously valuable public service.
The recent ban on plastic straws, bags and wrappers has led to a counter-productive surge in their paper equivalents: a “Big Forestry’s gain” as you describe it...
This is true. In waste there are no easy solutions, just choices. What is obvious to me is that many plastics could be replaced with paper-based, or bio-based solutions. But the real solutions are in buying fewer disposables, and in re-use. Retooling our economy to focus on refillable containers, for example, would save vast amounts of waste and lower carbon emissions.
Waste — whether plastic or nuclear — has taken a “spiritual toll” on you, you say in your book. How has your journey through the world’s vast wastelands changed you?
When you follow waste around the world, as I have, you start to realise that our conception of the economy is wrong. We are really at just the mid-point, and where things go is just as important as where it comes from. And waste is really just the tangible, physical part of human emissions and climate change. If we can’t get to grips with waste — which by the way accounts for somewhere north of 13% of all greenhouse gas emissions — it’s hard to think we’re going to solve the climate emergency.
Your book is not just about what we throw away, but also the opportunities lost through our profligacy. What, in your research around the world, shows us a solution?
I’ll give one example. We throw away a third of all food uneaten, enough to feed the world’s hungry people several times over. Food waste is also responsible for 8-10% of all CO2 emissions. So, by cutting food waste with simple solutions — working with supermarkets on better treatment for farmers, refrigeration and storage, smaller portion sizes, etc — we would not only help address climate change, we could feed a lot of hungry people, and use wasted farmland for housing or forests.
Wasteland; Oliver Franklin-Wallis, Simon & Schuster, ₹799.