Trash! How Cities Work: Dealing with Garbage in the US and India
by Joel Anderson and Jackie Kaplan

Read Joel's profile

Read Jackie's profile



Grades: 4-6

Curriculum Areas:
· Nonfiction Literature, guided reading, integrated literacy
· Social Studies
- comparing cultures
- child labor
- conflict resolution with peers and parents
· Environmental Studies
- trash removal
- recycling

Objective: students will be able to identify how different cultures deal with the challenge of trash.

1. Students will have the opportunity to read an excerpt from a chapter book based on real life written from the Southern Indian perspective.
2. Students will be able to describe the life of a street child in Southern India.
3. Students will be able to compare how communities in the United States and Southern India deal with garbage.
4. Students will be able to explain the importance of recycling and at least 5 ways to reduce garbage.

Reading Material:
Trash! On Ragpicker Children and Recycling, by Gita Wolf, Anushka Ravishandar, & Orijit Sen, Tara Press, 1999 (available at, or at
Reading Level: Ages 10 and up

This book evolved from a series of workshops conducted with ragpicker children in Chennai, India. It was recipient of the prestigious White Ravens, 2001 selection of the International Youth Library. Blending fact and fiction, Trash! is powerfully written book and beautifully illustrated.

The book tells the story of Velu, a young boy who runs away from his village to Chennai. He meets Jaya, who teaches Velu to earn money as a ragpicker. Life on the streets is difficult and frightening and getting involved with a moneylender adds to Velu’s problems. The book addresses complex issues including child rights and the environment; garbage disposal, and recycling in an intriguing story line. The book also contains “information boxes” that provide background information.

Excerpt from Trash!

Discussion of Excerpt:

1. What do you think about Velu’s life after his first day in the city? Do you think things will get better for him?

2. Kids in different parts of the world can do different things to make money. How do kids make money in your community?

From the book Trash!:

Even though it is illegal for anyone under 15 to work in India, this law is often ignored. It was estimated that more than 73 million child laborers were working in 1997. Why do children work? Some children learn their family trade at an early age. Other children run away from an unhappy home, such as Velu in the book “Trash!” and support themselves. Some work to support their family. Others are sold away into “bonded child labor” to pay a family debt.

Many children work in dangerous places such as matchstick factories and firecracker factories. Other children work as household servants, ragpickers, and restaurant helpers. The children work for low ages and are often overworked. They may be beaten or ill-treated by their employees. Child laborers may be exposed to unsanitary, unsafe conditions.

Human Rights Watch has noted “Child labor is convenient, cheap, compliant, and dependable. It depresses wages. It is easily replenishable. Bonded labor among both adults and children is not a new phenomenon in India. It is an old arrangement, and a convenient one for the lucky top layers of privilege. Those who have the power to change this arrangement are, by all measures, uninterested in doing so.” Human Rights Watch

Action for Your Classroom:
“Free The Children” is an international network of children helping children at a local, national and international level through representation, leadership and action. It was founded by Craig Kielburger in 1995, when he was 12 years old. The primary goal of the organization is not only to free children from poverty and exploitation, but to also free children and young people from the idea that they are powerless to bring about positive social change and to improve the lives of their peers.
This is the International Labor Organization’s child labor website. It includes an interactive site where you can compare your daily schedule to that of a child laborer.

3. Velu runs away from home because his father spends all the family’s money on alcohol. What are some of the things you can do if you have serious conflicts in your family?

Background Information for Teachers:

One of the challenges of humans living together in groups is dealing with the garbage. In the North American we deal with garbage using technology - garbage trucks, sanitary landfills and recycling. India uses these technologies too, but also relies on its extensive resources of people power. Dealing with garbage through recycling and disposal is one of the most important challenges of our century.

City Profile by Joel Anderson:

“During a visit to the city of Pondicherry in southern India in July of 2003, I came across street sweepers. I talked to a Christian man named Patrick. He told me that there were eighteen teams of street sweepers in Pondicherry, a city of one million people. Each team contains five members. Generally, two women sweep, two men collect the rubbish piles and take it to the wagon. One man is the tractor driver. Each person on the team earns RS 75 a day (around $1.50 U.S.) The rubbish is hauled to the outskirts of town, 5 km away. No children are employed a street sweepers according to Patrick.

Street sweepers are of caste called Dalits (formerly known as “untouchables”). The street sweepers do dirty work and often shunned by the rest of society and treated inhumanely. Street sweepers have the unfortunate reputation of drinking much of their earnings. The positive aspects of street sweeping is that people can make a living without begging, they work independently, and are helping to create a cleaner city.

Much of the garbage generated by homes and small business in burned in the street. Food waste and paper is left out for animals to eat. In many sections of Indian cities, scavenging pigs, along with stray dogs, help to recycle fecal material. Piles of less noxious vegetable and paper garbage are sorted through by the poor and homeless, who seek usable or salable bits of things. Cattle and goats, graze on these piles, turning otherwise useless garbage into valuable milk, dung (used for cooking fuel), and meat. Although the Brahmins totally shun meat, some people of other castes enjoy eating a little bit of meat once or twice a week if they can afford it.

I also stopped along the highway at a privately operated recycling center. There are also government and nonprofit recycling centers. The operator of this recycling center has twenty men canvassing neighborhoods asking for old things. People surrender bottles, cans, plastic containers, and other recyclable materials to these peddlers and receive a small payment or small household items such as toilet paper or bath soap. Factories contribute industrial waste to the recycling centers. Old newspapers, magazines, and office paper also gets recycled. Material is sold to factories for RS 25 for 50 kg. The workers at this recycling center can earn RS 1,000 a day (about $20 U.S.)”

According to a CSH 2002 Occasional Paper from the French Research Institute in India, garbage collection varies greatly in different cities in efficiency, political effectiveness, the use of private and nonprofit organizations, and cost management. Calcutta for example in 2000, produced about 2.5 million tons of garbage each day, of which 70% was collected by the city, 10% by private entrepreneurs, and 20% remained uncollected. The amount of garbage generated is actually higher, but is reduced through the recycling work of ragpickers, itinerant traders, and local receivers.

Nonprofit programs (NGOs) in many Indian cities such as Clean Ahmedabad Abhiyan in Ahmedabad, Waste-Wise in Bangalore, Mumbai Environmental Action Group in Mumbai (Bombay) and Vatavaran and Srishti in Delhi have been very important to promote environmental education and awareness. They are also helping to organize ragpickers to increase their wages and improve their lives. In Bangalore there is a now a nonprofit store where children can sell waste paper directly to the recyclers at a fair price. The center also runs classes and provides shelter to more than 65 boys.

In the city of Chennai (formerly known as Madras) rapid growth has resulted water supply contamination, sewage problems and informal garbage dumps. Government-provided garbage containers did not work as residents found it inconvenient to carry garbage to collection points. A nonprofit organization, Exnora International, intervened beginning in 1989, and developed "Civic Exnoras," - independent resident committees affiliated with the parent organization, each comprising of 75 to 100 families. A `street beautifier' is paid from neighborhood funds to collect refuse from households using specially designed tricycles, and to sweep the streets. The Civic Exnoras operate not only in middle- and upper-class neighborhoods, but also in slums, where residents were provided with free tricycles and youth are involved. 900 Civic Exnoras groups are now operating in Chennai, encouraging committees to implement other programs such as composting, tree planting, rain harvesting, a women's guild and a student education program."

- Powerpoint presentation


Gobar Times Magazine and Edugreen are online children’s magazine from India about science and the environment:

Learning About Trash:

Have the students save the nonfood trash from the classroom for one week. Weigh the trash. What is mostly in the classroom trash? Would the composition of the trash at home be different? How about in the lunchroom? What will be done with the trash? Where will it go when it leaves the school?

Math Extensions:

Using the weight of the week’s worth of trash, average the amount to figure out how much is throw out in the average day in your classroom. Multiply the amount by the number of classes in your school. Have a contest with another class to see who can throw out the least amount.

The more you have, the more you waste! People in the United States generate 1.8 kg of trash per day, in Australia 1.6 kg per day, in Japan .6 kg per day and in India .4 kg per day. More than one third of the trash we generate could be recycled.

What can be done with trash?

· Burn it. What are the problems in burning trash?
Incinerators can produce heat for buildings and generate electricity, but even high efficiency mass burn incinerators may produce smoke and chemical air pollution.
· Bury it. What are the problems in burying it?
Leachate is the substance that is produced when rotting garbage mixes with water. Sanitary landfills use a lining of clay and plastic to reduce leaking and the landfill is covered by dirt. These sanitary landfills are better than open dumps that are smelly and attract unwanted animals, but leachate may leak into the soil and groundwater. Landfills can occupy large areas of space that could be use for other purposes.

Activity: from The Kid’s Earth Handbook, Sandra Markle, Atheneum, N.Y, 1991

You might think that food, paper and yard clippings would decompose in a landfill in the same way they do in a forest floor. But how successful are fungi, molds, bacteria and other microbes in breaking down what gets dumped in landfills?

This activity will allow students to build a model of a landfill. You will need a clear glass quart jar, potting soil, two banana slices, plastic wrap, two penny-sized pieces of cooked hot dog, a handful of grass clippings, a sheet of newspaper, a chunk of a Styrofoam cup, and a two-inch square of aluminum foil.

1. Fill the jar one-third full with soil. Place a slice of banana, a piece of hot dog, and a small piece of the newspaper in the jar.
2. Add enough soil to fill the jar about half full. Wrap the second slice of banana and hot dog together in plastic. Next, wrap the grass clippings separately in plastic and place both packages on top of the soil in the jar. Add the Styrofoam chunk, the aluminum foil, and another piece of newspaper.
3. Finally, add soil until the jar is nearly full and pack it down. Place your model landfill in a warm, shaded place.
4. Wait three weeks and then spread out newspaper and dump the contents of the model landfill onto it. You may discover some mold growing on the unwrapped banana and hot dog, but odds are everything else will be the same. Studies made by digging into landfills have revealed that materials are more entombed there than decomposed. Even things like food and paper, which would normally break down if exposed to oxygen and sunlight, don’t change much when they’re buried.

Alternative ways to Deal with Trash:

· Reduce - Use less. Reduce use of disposable items such as paper plates, plastic cups, plastic spoons, non-returnable containers, and items that come in individual packaging. Discuss the issue of excess packaging. Help the students think about why toys come in three boxes instead of one or buying one large bag of potato chips rather than 4 small bags.

· Re-use - reusing plastic bags and bottles instead of throwing them out. Find new uses for things. Use recycle items in art projects. In many countries, children make toys out of things that are going to be thrown out.

· Recycle

How can materials be recycled?
- Aluminum cans: new soda cans, siding for a house, support poles for a playscape, roofing
- Glass containers: new glass packaging, decorative tiles, reflective paint for roads, filtration systems, aggregate for road base
- Plastics
- Plant pots, plastic lumber, can liners, lawn furniture, clothing, car bumpers, drain pipes, pallets, marine piers, decking lumber
- Tires: marine habitats, crash barriers, playground ground cover, parking stops, soaker hoses, roofing
- Steel food cans: appliances, auto parts, construction beams, new steel cans
- Recycling old textbook: the International Book Project has information on sending old textbooks to other countries -
- Composing vegetable food waste. There are new programs to help schools start composing.

Connections to Standards:
  • Recognize systems that are developed to meet specific community needs.
  • Identify common problems, needs and behavior of people from similar and different environments and cultures.
Background for students:

Learning About India
  • Geography - Where is India? Clearing up the confusion between India/ Indiana; Indians/American Indians? Finding India on the map. Talk about how southern India differs from northern India.
  • How do you get there? Have students use the Internet and maps to figure out different ways to get to India - fly? boat? drive?
  • How do different people live in India? City life/Village life. Rich children/Poor children.
Work/Play. What do children do in India? What are the schools like?

Images - Tamil Nadu, Tamil Nadu Children - for hundreds of pictures of Southern India

CIA factbook on India:

Kid friendly website about Indian folktales, stories and activities:

Chapter Book as Information Novel: (if we were to do lesson plan on entire book)
· Story Mapping
· Predicting
· Glossary of words
· Using context to understand meaning
· Background information on Indian English
· Sound bite of Indian student speaking English


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