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No time to waste

Literature 2023-09-25, 1:38am


Sudhirendar Sharma

Sudhirendar Sharma

The modern economy is built on trash. World over, some 2.5 billion tons of waste is yearly generated. A growing global south is expected to contribute annually an additional 1.3 billion tons of trash by 2050. None of this is news. The news though is that waste disposal system is in disarray; recycling is anything but effective; and zero-waste as a concept has yet to gain roots. Further, by promoting a culture of planned obsolescence the capitalist market is pushing a culture of planned obsolescence by producing cheaper products with shorter life span. No wonder, one third of what is finally dumped has been produced the same year.


Inspired by India’s $30 billion Swachh Bharat campaign launched in 2014, journalist Oliver Franklin-Wallis set out on an eye-opening journey to unearth the dirty truth about the world of rubbish. From Delhi’s mountainous landfill at Ghazipur to Ghana’s flooded second-hand markets, and from Britain’s vitrified nuclear waste store in Sellafield to Oklahoma electronics recycling facility in the US, the author traversed far and wide to understand what has happened, how we got here, and what if anything could be done. The overwhelming presence of trash in our daily lives may make many wonders if there is anything new the book may have to offer. 

Wasteland highlights relentless waste generation and accumulation as an emerging environmental anxiety worth serious attention. With 5 per cent of all global greenhouse gas emissions contributed by the solid waste industry, waste crises should feature high up in the list of eco-emergencies like heatwaves, floods, and fires. In reality it doesn’t and continues to be viewed as a municipal issue that needs resources and technology to keep the trash away from sight. The truth is that even after decades of mulling over the matter, the world of rubbish is neither out of sight nor out of mind. Should it not matter that given the wide variety of waste being generated, from plastic to nuclear and from food to packaging, only about 20 percent of it all gets recycled? 

In his shocking but fact-filled narrative, Oliver provides a gripping account of the political economy of waste generation and management. Such is the case that waste always attracts crime, it commands substantial profits, requires only the barest trained labor, and naturally deters close scrutiny. The waste industry has profited from this ecosystem where nobody asks questions. In his incredible journey, the author met any number of ordinary folks who want to make a difference but like climate change, it is a problem that individual action alone can do little to prevent. Zero waste, meaning not sending waste to landfill, as a concept has yet to take gain roots. Perhaps, the world needs an army of zero-waste influencers to cast an impact. 

Written with eloquence and authority, Oliver peels many layers of the waste crises as it democratically affects all of us, be in the developed or developing world. The author contends that his book is not only about what we throw away but what is lost in the process. World over a third of all food we produce is wasted, but some 820 million people go to bed hungry. It is therefore suggested that tackling our waste crises is more than just removing litter from our rivers and oceans. The world needs to rethink on the issue of waste from a wider perspective.  

Despite limited success with managing and treating waste, it is clear that the world is running out of room to contain its waste. 'The idea of waste needs radical thinking', suggests Oliver. It means reimagining the industrial system, the one that relies on zero chemical discharge, zero greenhouse gas emissions, and zero waste generation. Such a shift is not easy, it will warrant the whole new way of thinking of things and their uses, about how we define ourselves and our status through commodities, and what we cast away and what we keep in. Nothing less will suffice.

Wasteland is an engaging and disturbing treatise on waste. It looks at the science and sociology, toxicology and politics, economics and technology, and archeology and business aspects of waste in a single volume. A comprehensive understanding on a subject as complex as waste is imperative to resolve the crises. Given that our waste is both overwhelming and hopeless at this point in time, Oliver leaves a message for his growing children, ‘this planet is both precious and remarkable, try not to waste it’. The urgency of action is both loud and clear. 


by Oliver Franklin-Wallis

Simon&Schuster, London

Extent: 392, Price: £ 14.92.

(Dr. Sudhirendar Sharma is a writer and researcher on development issues. He is Based in New Delhi, India)

First published in Deccan Herald on Sept 24, 2023.