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India's plastic plague

Workers sort scraps of plastic by color so it can be melted down into pellets and resold to industries.

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KAI RYSSDAL: Bear this in mind the next time you're taking the trash down to the garage. Americans generate about 245 million tons of waste every year. That's more than any other industrialized country. Although the developing world is creeping up fast, with China and India in the lead.

In the past decade India's consumption of plastics grew by 12 percent a year. That's almost double the average economic growth rate during the same period. And it presents its own nonbiodegradable business opportunity. Miranda Kennedy reports from New Delhi.


MIRANDA KENNEDY: Workers are waving a rickety truck back into a dump ground, filled with burlap sacks of plastic waste.

The sacks are spilling over with plastic parts — shoe soles, reflector lights, toothbrushes . . . Each bag weighs a couple hundred pounds. Working in 100-degree heat, the laborers use huge metal hooks to claw and heft them onto their shoulders and into the truck. For this they make about $3 a day.

Vinod Kumar is a middle-aged laborer, hunched from a lifetime of hefting plastic.

VINOD KUMAR [interpreter]: Look at all this plastic junk here. Already today I've loaded and unloaded 20 tons of plastic. It's never ending. We get all kinds here — old, broken kids toys and plastic tubes and tea cups.

In the U.S., towns squabble over who will have to absorb all this plastic. But in India they want the stuff. Dealers here buy plastic from all over the world, especially Europe and the U.S. Then guys like Vinod sort it out by color and quality and resell it to factories, who restyle it into new plastic stuff. So this market is the heart of India's recycling industry. In the U.S., only about 10 percent of plastic gets recycled. But in India more than half is reused.

And here's the thing: There's no government recycling program in India. This is all ad-hoc small businessmen. In fact, this industry provides millions of jobs for India's urban poor. Environmentalist Anita Ahuja explains how it works.

ANITA AHUJA: Each recycler has a team of about 20 to 30 people working under him. Their job is to segregate the waste — like you get glass bottles, you get cardboard. And even in plastic there are lots of plastics — the high density, the low density, the buckets and the oil tins.

It's a self sustaining business. As incomes rise, India is manufacturing like crazy to meet the demand for more TVs and stereos and packaged food — and they all come wrapped in plastic.

AHUJA: I mean, we are the third, now, the biggest manufacturers and consumers of plastic. First is America, second is China, third is India. And our middle-class population is increasing so there's going to be much more consumption of plastic.

India's making so much plastic that even its legions of recyclers can't get rid of it fast enough. And a lot of it is such low quality that it's not even worth recycling — like thin polythene bags used for shopping. Plastic bags are notorious in India's cities. They clog up the drains and lead to flooding during the rainy season. Ahuja says the byproducts of the new middle class are destroying India's cities.

AHUJA: It's really sad — I mean, for the drains, for the river. I mean, the world has produced enough plastic, and now we should not produce anymore. And we should recycle, because the plastic cannot be destroyed.

Some of it disappears into the stomachs of animals. Studies have shown that the average cow in India eats so much garbage that it has up to 100 plastic bags in its stomachs by the time it dies.

In New Delhi, I'm Miranda Kennedy for Marketplace.

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