Photo: iStock
Photo: iStock

Opinion | Donald Trump plays garbage detective

The US president seems to have detected trash of Indian origin washing up on American shores. His detection methods are unclear, but for clues, let’s look at global ocean currents

The president of the United States of America, Donald Trump, is well known for a frequently upturned nose. On many past occasions, it has been identified by observers as a sneer. But in at least one recent instance, it may actually have been a flinch—one that we Indians, try as we might, cannot ignore. For it concerns us. Or our waste disposal practices, to be specific. What exactly led Trump to investigate the matter is unclear at this stage, but reports from the US suggest that he has sniffed around his country and found something rotten in the state of California, the blame for which he expects us to bear. Speaking at the Economic Club of New York on Tuesday, where he sought to justify his decision to walk out of the Paris Accord on climate change, Trump said that India dumps heaps of garbage into the sea that floats all the way to the US west coast and washes ashore at Los Angeles. We are not the sole accused of sending the US our trash. The US president accused Russia and China, among others, of doing the same. “Isn’t [it] amazing [that their garbage] ends up in Los Angeles?" he asked.

Indeed, “amazing" is the operative word in that question. It is well known that the US has the entire planet under satellite watch, and if a team of globe watchers has tracked some waste of Indian origin—say, an empty plastic bottle of drinking water—making the arduous journey, then New Delhi deserves to be shown the data. Perhaps Angeleno beach rakes have gathered some physical evidence of such an ungainly violation of American sovereign territory; if so, then it should be presented forthwith. What few dispute is the existence of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, a blob of thousands of tonnes of trash that floats around between California and Hawaii. This expanse of garbage is estimated to be twice the size of Texas, a large US state, and is composed of plastic waste, general litter, chemical sludge and construction debris. It accumulates there because, as the earth spins on its axis, grand swirls of ocean currents tend to push such flotsam to central spots with relatively stagnant water. All oceans have these currents, and odd bits of trash from far over the horizon do land up on coasts. It is just that what reaches Californian beaches is usually what is disposed at sea by countries around the Pacific Rim—China among them—in the northern hemisphere. According to a 2015 study, China, Indonesia, the Philippines, Vietnam, Sri Lanka and Thailand were the world’s top contributors of ocean litter. The US dumps plenty too.

To be sure, India is no angel on sea pollution, but our refuse would have to be super-mobile in the best tradition of American super-heroism to reach US shores. It would have to defy the odds every latitude (and longitude) of the way. The offending trash would probably need to escape the Arabian Sea, somehow slip across the equator to join an Indian Ocean gyre, get past Australia to join the Antarctic circumpolar current, and then first enter the southern Pacific swirl before making a devious switch to currents in the northern hemisphere to scrape past China, Russia and Alaska for its final destination. Indian garbage is hardy, we admit, even adventurous. But the preponderance of probabilities weighs heavily against such a voyage.