Recycling isn’t always good: Sometimes it can be lethal. 70,000 tons of contaminated scrap steel from the World Trade Center were shipped to India before shipments were stopped after objections from environmentalists. The WTC scrap is contaminated with asbestos, PCBs, plastics and the lead, mercury and other contaminants in the computers that were inside the twin towers. India has become the developed world’s dumping ground, rapidly poisoning over a billion of its people with toxins from the waste products of the rest of the world.

Every year, India imports millions of tons of plastic, steel, and other metals, as well as discarded computers, which are taken apart in order to re-use the materials. The workers who do this are often ignorant of the risks involved. “Environmental regulations are really not there,” says Suneel Pandey, of the Tata Research Energy Institute. “There are no rules.”

Indian scrap dealers are having trouble selling the WTC steel, but not because of contamination. “People are having some reservations. It’s a sentimental matter,” says O.P. Bajpai of the Indian Steel Alliance. “In India, it’s a matter of belief.”

Recycling employs millions of Indians at the bottom of society, who would have trouble finding other jobs, and turns millions of tons of domestic waste into useful material. Butindustry and environmental groups are concerned that much of the recycling is actually “downcycling,” turning out a product of much lower quality than the original.

Large-scale recycling of materials such as the WTC scrap accounts for less than half of India’s total recycling. The rest is done through kabadiwallahs, who are men, women and children living in cardboard slums who rise at dawn to search for trash, such as foil medicine packages, rags, plastic bags, glass and iron. The trash is brought back to the slums, where it is sorted, weighed and packed for buyers from recycling factories.

The work is hard, dirty and dangerous, but in a country with one of the world’s highest rates of poverty it pays better than some other menial jobs. “There are lots of dangers,” says Mohammed Babul Sheikh. “We fall sick very often. We get skin rashes, fever. But, then, we are poor: What difference does it make?”

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