Review: Wasteland by Oliver Franklin-Wallis
A deep study of planet Earth’s waste crisis, Wasteland looks at the enduring impact of the things we throw away
Wasteland begins on familiar territory. New Delhi’s Ghazipur landfill, a 65-metres high mountain of garbage that rests comfortably on the border of the national capital. With each passing day, 2500 tonnes of household waste are added to its height and width.
It was Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s $30 billion Swachh Bharat campaign that brought journalist Oliver Franklin-Wallis to India to investigate this rather infamous landfill which is estimated to hold 14 million tonnes of waste of all kinds.
Waste is not an appealing topic but it is an important one nevertheless, as Oliver notes. It isn’t just about getting rid of garbage from your home. It is about being aware of the fact that your castoffs become the property of the waste industry, a large global enterprise, and all of it will most definitely come back to haunt you some time in the future.
Oliver is determined to thoroughly examine this business of waste disposal. He writes in graphic detail about what appears to be a black cloud looming over the Ghazipur landfill, which is, in fact, an apocalyptic flock of thousands of black kites and vultures. He delves deeper into how the unique odour of a dumpster separates one city mounds of refuse from another. He breaks down the smells emanating from all kinds of decomposing rubbish — from hydrogen sulphide (the smell of rotting eggs) to diamines putrescine (the compound that gives rotting meat its odour) — by plunging into the environmental factors ie climate, temperature and constituents of waste that influence the smell.
To investigate waste, one must mull over the people who manage it. Here, Oliver brings in the important question of caste while dwelling upon the marginalisation of waste workers, especially in the context of India where landfill picking is not just low-status work but often association with migrant workers. He also compares the people navigating this giant highland of waste with sailors navigating the sea, drawing an apt analogy between the uncertain vastness of landfills that collapse and kill people to the unpredictable nature of the sea. In 2017 alone, he writes, landfill collapses killed at least 150 people worldwide, including 29 when a dump in Colombo, the capital of Sri Lanka, collapsed onto a residential neighbourhood.
From tracing the history of waste back to 500 BC when ancient Athenians passed the first known sanitation law to looking at the contemporary fashion industry that produces almost 8 to 10 percent of all global carbon emissions, Oliver’s outrage is palpable. He notes that recycling isn’t a very environment-friendly process either.
He takes us to Kemsley, Kent, UK’s largest paper mill by volume built back in 1923, (the second largest in Europe) which receives 2,500 tonnes of wastepaper every day (9,12,500 tonnes in a year) and churns out 820,000 tonnes of fresh, new paper. One must, however, first understand that recycling waste paper is a business that involves using up to 170 litres of water to produce a single kilogram of paper.
And then there’s plastic, a product that never really goes away. Plastics don’t just end up as waste; they begin as waste. Any plastic that is broken down with an intention of disintegration, simply breaks down into smaller nanoplastics, which are then small enough to enter the human bloodstream, brains, and even the placentas of unborn children.
The conversation around waste management is incomplete without touching on the reuse of second-hand clothes. The author takes us to Kantamanto, the largest second-hand clothes market in Ghana and, indeed, all of West Africa. The country’s import of second hand clothing from the West really exploded in the 1980s and 1990s killing the scope for any local textile manufacturing sectors to emerge and survive. The hand-me-downs came to be known as Obroni Wawu or “dead white man’s clothes”. Today, Kantamanto is home to as many as 30,000 traders crammed into just seven claustrophobic acres in the heart of the city. Western countries continue to dump their textile waste here under the guise of “donations”. The reality is that 40 percent of what is imported, is completely useless and includes undergarments stained with blood and clothing from hospitals. All of this eventually ends up in Kantamanto’s aisles and gutters, thus never truly being castoff for good.
Oliver highlights an important but lesser-known aspect of waste management – the global exportation of waste. He recalls how the dust heap of the Great Fire of London in 1812 was used to rebuild the city of Moscow, Russia. More recently, in 2016, the United States alone sent 1,500 shipping containers full of waste to China every day.
The idea of just doing away with the waste by hiding it in landfills or burning it comes at a steep cost. Burning emits a spectrum of pollutants, ranging from heavy metals like mercury, cadmium, and lead, to hydrochloric acid, a major constituent of acid rain. The process is notorious for emitting dioxins and furans, two highly toxic chemicals known to disrupt hormones and cause a range of cancers.
But then, there are some wastes that must be burned, such as medical waste comprising cancer drugs, hormone treatments and opiates, and anatomical waste, which, if left unburnt and inside landfills could promote the growth of antibiotic-resistant bacteria, and which if released, could risk polluting soils and waterways.
From London, Oliver brings us back to India. This time, he centres his study on the Yamuna in Delhi, and its ominous foam during the winter months. This unnatural foaming is a result of extreme contamination. According to studies, Oliver notes, “the Yamuna is contaminated with unsafe levels of heavy metals, including cadmium, chromium, and lead, along with sewage outfalls, which release 477 million litres of raw effluent per day directly into its waters”. As a result, the river water is no longer considered safe for drinking or bathing. In fact, in 2017, it was declared “biologically dead” – that is, unfit to support aquatic life.
On the Okhla barrage overlooking the Yamuna, Oliver is joined by his source Feroz, who says the river took in the ashes of as many as 50 families per day at the height of the Covid 19 pandemic. Interestingly, the river gives back as much as it takes. Feroz often dives in to retrieve money, jewellery and the occasional unidentified dead body.
Oliver’s book is essential reading for anyone concerned about the environment and the perils of the waste crisis that is already upon us. The thing about waste is that what goes around, comes around. No matter where it begins or where it goes, eventually “it all ends up in the same place – the endless ingenuity of humanity in one filthy, fascinating mass”.
Arunima Mazumdar is an independent writer. She is @sermoninstone on Twitter and @sermonsinstone on Instagram.