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Poverty, Wealth, and Waste

  • Barun Mitra

    In 1986, a waste-to-energy plant opened in Delhi, India, financed by the Danish International Development Agency at a cost of over $10 million. The plant was expected to generate 3.8 megawatts of electricity from garbage, and its success was to be copied in other Indian cities. However, the plant was a failure. Two years later, the government was spending about $100,000 a year to burn garbage without producing energy. Surprisingly, the principal reason was the fact that there wasn’t enough urban waste in Delhi.

    It turns out that the waste-paper, rags, plastic, etc.-in Delhi produces only about half the caloric value of the waste from a Western city. This contrast tells us a lot about the treatment of waste in rich and poor countries and helps us to understand the importance of trade in waste.

    Poor societies can afford little waste in the traditional sense. Poverty ensures that every bit of a resource is reused, recycled, or otherwise utilized. In India, an enormous army of rag-pickers continuously supplies millions of trash merchants all over the country. They pick up virtually everything that might have a potential value. The rag-pickers, particularly in urban centers, have an unmatched capacity to extract and sort every bit of material that can be reused, recycled, recycled, or have other potential uses.

    This interest in resource utilization pervades almost all strata of society. Families in India willingly wait for weeks in the hope of getting a higher price for their old newspapers. Trash dealers frequent homes on a regular basis to buy newspapers, plastic and glass bottles, discarded furniture, or household gadgets. These are then meticulously sorted and sold for reuse, repair, recycling, resource recovery, and any number of other uses.

    The pattern of waste utilization changes from poor rural areas to small towns to big cities. In the smaller and poorer areas, the volume of actual waste is very small, because whatever material can have some possible utility is reused or repaired. Consequently, dealing with waste as an economic activity is minimal. As one moves into towns, waste acquires a more economically vibrant characteristic. Household consumption levels are higher, and so is the quantity of waste. Consequently, there are more trash dealers to exploit the economic potential of the larger volume of waste.

    There are two reasons why recycling in poorer countries like India is so thorough. First, the low value of labor justifies the long hours spent extracting material. For rag-pickers, there are few other ways to earn money. Second, because the country is poor, many products made from virgin raw materials are luxury goods, simply too expensive for most people. Thus, there is a ready market for reused and recycled goods.

    The painstaking efforts to recycle materials do not mean that a poor country like India is pollutionfree. Indeed, the low quantity of waste generated in an economy with technological backwardness and little capital keeps the waste industry from graduating above small-scale local initiatives. And higher pollution occurs because there isn’t the technology to capture highly dispersed waste such as sulfur dioxide from smokestacks or heavy metals that flow into wastewater.

    In contrast to the careful reuse and recycling of waste in poor countries, per capita generation of waste is much higher in wealthy countries (although pollution is lower). This obvious difference is often used to extol the virtues of lower consumption in poor countries and the evils of consumerist lifestyles in the latter. But the explanation is more complex.

    Rich societies generate more wastes because their citizens can afford to do without the leftovers, whether in the form of food, packaging, worn-out clothes, or energy. Another way of looking at it is that the value of the waste, even while it is substantial in terms of weight or volume, is so small in comparison to individuals’ disposable income that most people find the value of waste (in economic terms, the marginal utility of waste) to be quite low. Many cheap substitutes are of better quality. Many items that are reused in India are thrown away in the United States because they just aren’t worth very much to people who can afford new products.

    Does this mean that the economics of waste loses viability as a society becomes richer? It may seem that way, because waste handling is such a big issue in the developed countries. Yet the much greater quantity of waste generated, along with newer technologies, should make the waste industry more economically rewarding in richer countries.

    Indeed, that has been the case, as Pierre Desrochers shows in “The Secret Past of Resource Recovery” (PERC Reports, Sept. 1999, 5Ð7). He reminds us that there was a flourishing waste processing industry decades before the major environmental statutes were enacted. And even today, a lot of waste, particularly industrial by-products, is sold for processing around the world.

    Yet, as western nations grew wealthier, leftovers became more visible. This reflects a problem of institutions (the rules and laws that govern actions). First, there was more pollution because of the “tragedy of the commons.” Since people could dump waste on commonly owned or open-access property (such as the air and water), some people didn’t feel the need to develop waste disposal systems. Naturally, this increased the levels of pollution.

    Second, the market for wastes and by-product was not allowed to work to the extent that it could. Wealthy societies have the capability-and frequently the desire-to dispose of waste. They can pay people to cart off leftovers rather than seeking payment from the waste disposers, as poorer people do. Under a market system, as societies grow wealthier, this should lead to markets for the disposal of waste in landfills or incinerators.

    Unfortunately, rather than privatizing resources, restricting access to them, and allowing markets in waste to develop, government agencies took over the role of regulating and even providing the service of waste processors (often, by owning landfills). Bypassing all evidence of how the private sector had been performing this service economically, the argument was made that private markets couldn’t provide this service.

    Without the disciplining influence of market forces, public agencies became inefficient and began to consider waste a problem, not a potential resource. So efforts were made to regulate or reduce the generation of waste.

    Waste can again become a valuable resource if markets are allowed to develop, both within countries and internationally. Free trade in waste would allow the comparative advantage of societies to make waste processing economically viable and efficient. (There are already attempts by some neurs to hold Internet-based auctions of wastes.)

    Rich societies with technological advantage and economies of scale could buy certain wastes from poorer countries where low volume makes processing more expensive. Poorer societies, with lower labor costs, could import other types of waste products from rich countries, augmenting their own low quantity and making processing viable.

    Current rules thwart this process. Responding to the international agreement known as the Basel convention, India stopped the import of waste lead and zinc. This was probably economically and environmentally unsound. The low consumption level in India of products such as batteries means that imported waste is necessary to make recycling viable. Thus, the Basel convention may be contributing to a higher pollution load in developing countries by restricting trade that makes recycling feasible.

    Trade creates wealth, and if free trade is allowed, including trade in waste, someday all countries can become wealthy. What will happen to waste? Not only will some trade in waste continue (as it does in wealthier countries today), but the greater productivity and more advanced technology will ensure reasonably priced disposal of the waste that cannot be traded. Meanwhile, both the economy and the environment will gain if we can bring back to life the much abused clichŽ “wealth from waste.”

    Barun Mitra is the founder of Liberty Institute, a research organization based in New Delhi. For more information about the institute, contact

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