India, Southeast Asia Dumping Ground for Toxic Waste : Environment: Many companies are shipping their recyclables to Third World countries, where work is being done by the very poor with few safety controls.
Toxic fumes rose into Mangay Ram’s face as his acetylene torch cut into a car battery. In a few seconds, the teen-ager split open the casing and pulled out the lead plates with hands mottled by acid burns.
Wearing no mask or protective clothing, Ram risks brain damage from the fumes and serious injury from the battery acid. But, alongside four other boys, he works up to 10 hours a day breaking open old batteries shipped mostly from Australia.
They need the work, however awful the job. And highly developed “First World” countries are glad to give it to them.
Instead of reprocessing their own waste, many companies ship it here, where environmental standards are lower and enforcement is lax. Environmentalists say India and other South Asia countries are becoming the world’s dumping ground for toxic waste.
Plastic bags and bottles, used car batteries, lead, cadmium, metal scrap and even radioactive waste come from the United States, Germany, Britain and Canada.
“In the United States, supermarkets tell customers that the soda bottles will be recycled. But they don’t tell them that the bottles are being exported to poor countries with rotten work safety and environmental regulations,” said Ann Leonard of Greenpeace, the worldwide environmental group.
For India, Pakistan and Bangladesh, hazardous waste is a much-needed source of revenue.
“Just by closing down these factories, we can’t say the problem is solved,” said India’s environment minister, Kamal Nath.
“There’s the question of demand and employment. We must integrate these concerns while banning the import of these things,” he said in an interview.
Nath said the import of toxic waste, like batteries, was allowed so long as they were recycled safely. But, he admitted, enforcement is difficult.
Iqbal Malik, an Indian environmentalist, sees the situation in darker shades: “The recycling is done under the most primitive conditions. Yet the government is not concerned because it generates jobs.”
In hundreds of makeshift factories--mostly illegal--workers earn as little as 10 rupees (30 cents) a day working under appalling conditions to melt the plastic bags for new bottles, toys, buckets and other goods.
The production of plastic emits dangerous chemicals into the air, such as sulfur dioxide and carbon monoxide compounds, which can cause cancer and birth defects and can damage the kidneys, nervous and immune systems, and blood.
Health hazards go beyond just those who work with waste products. Sulfuric acid from recycled batteries is dumped into gutters or rivers. Lead-based ash from other recyclers fouls the air.
No one knows how much toxic waste reaches India, since it is usually categorized as raw material for recycling. But a Greenpeace analysis of export documents from many countries revealed that Australia alone exported nearly half a million tons of used batteries to India in 1993, and the United States sent nearly half its plastic waste exports to the subcontinent.
Much of the U.S. import was in the form of soft drink bottles. Greenpeace said 23 shiploads of plastic bottles were sent to India to be melted down.
The high quality of U.S. plastic bags and bottles, in turn, means recyclers are loath to work with low-quality Indian products, and cities are becoming choked with mountains of plastic rubbish.
And the massive amount of foreign waste pouring into India has driven down prices for recycled products.
“I used to get up to 5 rupees a kilo [7 cents a pound], but now few people buy Indian plastic,” said a 12-year-old named Mohammed, one of the estimated 10,000 people who try to make a living by scavenging recyclable goods from the huge heaps of waste in New Delhi.
Start your day right
Sign up for Essential California for news, features and recommendations from the L.A. Times and beyond in your inbox six days a week.
You may occasionally receive promotional content from the Los Angeles Times.