I read almost every book written about waste, detritus, toxics, waste-pickers, landfills, plastics, materials, so long as it’s in English. It’s part of my job, you see. I need to keep informed. Consequently, I’ve read a lot by now, on this increasingly popular theme. No surprise, then, when another book on waste presented itself, I thought of it as a duty rather than pleasure.
Oliver Franklin Wallis’ book, Wasteland, began its journey in my life as an effort to stay informed. The way I read books on these themes is to first try and get a sense of their breadth -what they cover. This was clearly about almost every type of waste - exactly the kind of omni-book I dread spending a precious weekend on. So I took it along on a night flight, hoping to tick the read-it box. But then, it turned into one of the best I’ve read on the subject.
Quite soon, I discovered that Wasteland isn’t just about many types of wastes, but how these unwanted materials play out in diverse geographies. Wallis drags us across the globe, from Ghana to India to England and more, stitching together realities from the ground that unmask pompous assumptions with flair and science.
Plastic recycling was perhaps my favourite theme in this book, because it seemed like an eloquent ally in my everyday work. Wallis undid the myth of ‘glorious recycling’, and shows how it is a clumsy, polluting stop-gap arrangement at the best of times. The hype around the possibility of recycling has most people believing this is their green karma. Wallis underscores how stunted all of this is. As we struggle today with addressing the climate crisis, this chapter warns us against being sheep led to the slaughter.
As dazzling is the chapter about the wastepickers of Delhi - a theme I am particularly familiar with. By letting the voice of the waste-picker dominate, Wallis offers a searing, tear-jerking, reality few know about. The act of handing over the pages to almost ‘invisible people’ is deeply political, democratic and personal. Mostly, what I appreciate about this, is his dignifying them without being patronising. No educated, white Uncle-ji here, trying to “do the right thing”.
By the time I was halfway through the book, I wanted to email Wallis: “Yes, yes, yes. You’re spot on. It really is the story of people, people, people.” Ghana’s fashion trade, its precarious place in the official urban vision is often presented as an outrage. But it’s more complex, we are told. The second hand clothes market brings vitality to the informal economy and enables human ingenuity and enterprise.
Yet, some of the people – mostly anonymous - had me annoyed. The chapter on food waste turned me into a red hot chilli pepper - so many people, forcing so much food waste. Like those folks who sell packaged food. I was taken aback to learn that by selling just five items -potatoes, apples, bananas, cucumbers and broccoli - loose, British retailers could prevent 60,000 tons of food waste and 8,800 tons of plastic waste annually. Wallis also connects the dots well. Food waste also means wasting 28 per cent of all farmland worldwide. For us in the Global South, the devastating reality of climate change already means diminishing agricultural productivity. As more food in upmarket urban stores are sold in net bags (potatoes) or cling wrapped (apples), Wasteland should alert us to the foolishness of this.
I’d be lying if I said a lot of this was new to me. Though of course, I didn’t know many of the data points. Nor had I spent time thinking about England, a country I haven’t visited for nearly 15 years but one which features prominently. When Wallis began rolling out British environmental history, it opened out a whole new realisation: England seems to have been a stinking country, London leading the charge. Accounts of people drowning in their own hillocks of shit, or stepping into piles of it, forced me to reimagine almost-modern England beyond literature and art. It put the sanitation revolution in perspective, as it did the game changing Swachh Bharat Mission.
Teaching people to harm others less when they shit means creating affordable public-and private goods and services, and a revolution in our minds. Yes, we know this too, but read about it here in this book and you develop a richer appreciation. For giving us nuanced knowledge like this, I ignore Wallis’ tourist-like glib commentary every now and then.
So if I knew a lot of the stuff in the book, why couldn’t I put the book down? I even read it on the flight back, afflicted by an unknown fever that would soon have me bedridden for a fortnight. Lying in my bed, I figured out why this book was riveting : the book isn’t about waste at all. It’s a biography of the human race in the 21st century. Wasteland is the story of our collective lives today. It isn’t flattering, but it’s essential reading.
(Bharati Chaturvedi is the Founder and Director of Chintan Environmental Research and Action Group, an organisation that focuses on issues of urban poverty, consumption, and sustainable livelihoods for those working in the informal sector in India.)
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