Above a foul towering dump in Delhi a cloud of vultures and Siberian black kites fly in hope, ‘careening over the mountainside like some dreadful murmuration’. Here some of the world’s million waste pickers stash water bottles along their route, ‘like climbers making camp’. Oliver Franklin-Wallis concedes that his subject – the dirty truth of what happens to our rubbish – is not appealing.
But he does his best to make that untrue with arresting analogies and metaphors that shine like metal in trash in his account of his extensive travels through what the world discards and disdains. He focuses on the detritrus generated by food and fashion, and he proves a charming guide to environments that range from the depressing to the grotesque – including the mountains of black-bin contents smelling of bad cider, rotting fish and cadaverine conveyed to an English Merf (Material Energy Recovery Facility. Happily there is also Smerf, for special materials).
His access to the places that bury, sort, burn and treat the world’s waste is impressive, considering that hardly anyone in the industry was willing to talk to him. This has always been a secretive business, regardless of its links to organised crime. Tight profit margins, the possibility of riches (a tonne of electronic waste can yield 100 times more gold than a tonne of gold mine ore) and the public’s convenient refusal to pay attention to it all make for the opaque.
The statistics will fill you with despair. Australia landfills half of its organic waste and the US buries or burns more than two thirds. Of all the shocking facts in this book, this is one of the saddest, since this type of waste has its inbuilt disposal system, called rot.
Luckily we have some heroes.