For as far as the eye can see, there’s stinking, smoking, untreated garbage. It’s concentrated in the municipal dump, in the South Indian city of Madurai, but not contained by it. The surrounding fields are also piled with trash. Stray dogs nibble at mounds of rotting food. The trees are denuded and covered with shredded plastic, the blue and pink and yellow bags like some kind of sinister confetti.
The road to the dump, and beyond it to Madurai’s airport, is like a Hollywood vision of dystopian ruin: lifeless, black, choked with human refuse. And that’s why Rajagopalan Vasudevan’s enthusiasm is so jarring. As he makes his way through the rubbish, he’s like a child on a treasure hunt. “Wonderful resource,” he says, admiring a jumble of plastic bags, jerrycans, and torn food packets. “With all this plastic, I could lay the whole road to the airport.”
It is difficult to exaggerate India’s garbage problem. Jairam Ramesh, the nation’s former environment minister, has said that if there were a “Nobel prize for dirt and filth,” India would win it. As much as 40 percent of the country’s municipal waste remains uncollected, according to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. Of the waste that is collected, almost none is recycled. Most of it sits in open dumps such as the one in Madurai, leaching into the soil and contaminating groundwater. Some of it is burned, releasing dioxins and other toxic chemicals into the air.