Identifying the dumper through garbage fingerprinting

Garbage can tell you more about a person or household than any amount of surveillance can! So, it is actually easy to find out who's the dumper - if you're ready to get your hands dirty.

To understand what unexpected thing V and X did next, and why they did it, it is essential to know what they had done the previous day, at the same garbage dump. They had done a quick session of garbage forensics – or dump fingerprinting!

If you saw the recent movie – Zero Dark Thirty – on the capture of Osama Bin Laden in Pakistan, it had one crucial garbage-related clue that revealed Osama’s hideout in the compound at Abbottabad, a stone’s throw away from the Pakistani military academy.  It was the “absence of garbage” emanating from this particular compound that evoked suspicion among the CIA and others on the trail of the world’s most wanted man.

Those who understand espionage and forensics, know that garbage can tell you more about a person or household than any amount of surveillance can! And those who want to cover their tracks, ensure their garbage is burnt and not available to detectives to analyse. This is what Osama and his fellow-inmates in their secret hideout did – they ensured that all their garbage was burnt within the compound itself, and nothing ever left. This created suspicion, and started off a chain of events that eventually led to the dramatic commando assault on the compound where he met his end. Incredibly, the method of disposal of daily garbage was the weak link in Osama’s carefully laid and successful plan to evade detection for over 10 years!

V and X had understood this concept very well, during their survey of garbage dumps on Church Street. Every garbage dump leaves fingerprints and watertight evidence – the culprits never bother to cover their tracks! They had spent a day poking through garbage dumps and immediately acquired a level of forensic expertise – they could simply walk up to a dump and identify all the ‘culprits’ in minutes – by just looking at it, sorting through the garbage, and taking a walk in the vicinity.

Clues abound in any garbage dump – supplier invoices, railway tickets, credit card bills, ATM slips, restaurant napkins. By analyzing the contents of one small black garbage bag they found at this dump, they figured out an incredible amount of personal details about the person living across the road – his name, address, employer, salary, credit card bills (with details of expenditure), family medical history, insurance details, diet, favourite foods and several other pieces of information about his family of a fairly intimate nature! Try it on your own garbage someday – look at what gets collected in your dustbin at the end of the day and see if a detective can piece together your life and habits from it!  You will be shocked! Your garbage says a lot about you – more than your clothes, family name or business card.

Even a seemingly innocuous item like dried leaves in a garbage dump offer a clue – by looking for the source tree, one can quickly figure out which compound’s sweepings have been dumped here. Sometimes you may find garbage from two different stores in a plastic bag belonging to a third store – suggesting that they have the same housekeeping maid who combines their garbage in an available bag after scavenging what she wants. There is lots that can be learnt from diligently studying the contents of a garbage dump.

V and X would always get curious looks from onlookers – two decently dressed guys, poking around in a garbage dump and taking pictures. In India, a pile of garbage on a main road evokes no curiosity, citizens mucking about it in it does.  Well, not all citizens. If the citizen is wearing khaki, or ‘looks like a municipal worker’ or  ragpicker, nobody cares – if the citizen is wearing jeans and a t-shirt, it attracts stares, and questions.

While fingerprinting a dump, V and X always wore jeans and a t-shirt – not fancy stuff, but clearly indicating that they were not government workers. There was a reason for this – attitudes to garbage in India are driven by the dictum – ‘it’s someone else’s job’, and most people are simply blind to the issue. The more the urban middle-class see ‘people like them’ mucking about in garbage, the more they will face up to the issue and start thinking about it – and eventually a few will believe they can actually fix the problem themselves. This leap from ‘it’s someone else’s job’ to ‘it’s my duty to fix this’ is what can transform our cities – this leap has to be made in the mind!

Most of the culprits who dumped at the Times of India Spot were easily identifiable from the garbage– there were at least 17 of them who used this Spot everyday! Some were large companies (like Times of India, Wipro, Abu Dhabi Bank, State Bank of India), some were well-known stores or restaurants (Hum India, Bheema’s), and some were roadside tea kiosks (there were 4 of them). Some were right next door, some walked all the way from MG Road, a good 200 feet away.

X had come up with a ‘200 Feet rule’ – that the maximum distance people will walk to dump garbage is 200ft away from their shop/home, and ideally round a corner – so it is out of sight! Barring a few hardworking dumpers, this rule was very much in evidence here.

Finding the culprits is never really hard once you get down to it – the important thing is what to do once they are identified. Confronting an Indian with evidence of his wrongdoing is a surefire way to failure. Hackles are raised, egos get in the way, motives are questioned – and the problem does not get solved. In fact, it results in deadlock, and bad blood is created.

Nobody likes to be told they are doing something wrong, especially an Indian!  It’s a bit like deciding how to respond to an Indian who has just jumped a queue ahead of you – they are thick-skinned enough to deal with you, and moral arguments don’t work. X and V have a specific strategy of how to use this incriminating information –but that will have to wait till Monday. It is one of the many little tricks and strategies in their arsenal – all developed through actual practice and experience.

Let’s now turn to what X and V did next!


  1. Usha Srinath says:

    interesting. used to do this in my newly developing neighborhood with many vacant sites some years back.was certainly stalled by the denials. waiting to hear about your strategy! Vacant sites are an open invitation for garbage dumping in residential areas. but differ a little from the 200 feet rule. Quite often I used to see unknown people in cars and scooters slinging bags of garbage into vacant sites as they passed by. And industrial waste and construction debris being dumped. we often chased them and even sometimes made them reload it. but it can become a full time occupation to keep vigil.

  2. Veena says:

    Keen to know what happens next ….:)

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