For a recent graduate seminar about the history of waste and waste management, I had the pleasure of reading the remarkable book Wasting Away, written by Kevin Lynch and edited by Michael Southworth. The book defines waste as anything that is no longer useful for its original intended purpose. Thus it is just as wasteful to hoard things one no longer needs as it is to throw them away. Lynch argues that waste is a natural process and not something to fear. Instead, we should learn to “waste well,” by finding new uses for old things.

The one major shortcoming of Wasting Away, I felt, was the book’s narrow-minded focus on waste in highly-industrialized western societies. “Looking at Waste,” a photo essay by editor Southworth, included one of the book’s few references to the non-western world. The caption to a photo of an Indian woman picking through trash claimed that very little gets wasted in India.

In the following photo essay, I will try to move beyond Southworth’s overgeneralization that there is little waste in India. It is simply untrue that not much is wasted in India; it is true, though, that much of what is wasted is wasted well. I have decided to focus on urban India here. Although urban India is not representative of the majority of the Indian population (seventy percent of the country lives in villages), it invites easier comparison with urban and suburban areas in the West.

For more information on the reuse of trash in India, please see my earlier blog post, “Sweepers and Scavengers.


  • Rathje, William L., and Cullen Murphy. Rubbish!: The Archaeology of Garbage. New York, NY: HarperCollins Publishers, 1992.
  • Lynch, Kevin, and Michael Southworth. Wasting Away. San Francisco: Sierra Club Books, 1990.
  • Sridhar, Kala Seetharam, and A. Vehugopala Reddy. State of Urban Services in India’s Cities: Spending and Financing. New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2010.