New Internationalist Magazine On Trash
Copyright: Heldur Netocny/Still Pictures
It's late afternoon. A time of day when the light falls less harshly, more obliquely. An hour favoured by photographers. Bathed in an amber glow, the dump begins to look almost magical. As the evening proceeds the setting sun will, every now and again, pick out a bit of glass or metal and turn it into gold.
A curious alchemy. Both appropriate and inappropriate. For garbage is gold to the people who eke out a living on city rubbish dumps, be they in Mexico, Manila or Lagos.
But it's also trash whatever the tricks of the light. Stinking refuse that attracts rats, flies and vultures. It can be dangerous too: putrid, leaking, toxic-chemical god-knows-what mixed in with the items that can be retrieved, re-used, sold on.
You have to know what to touch and what to leave well alone. But one can't always know. And sometimes younger pickers are attracted to something a toy, a cap, a comic, some treat and caution is thrown to the wind.
One could wax lyrical about the rubbish pickers and scavengers of this world. How they are pioneer recyclers, the greenest of the green. And in a sense it's true. But such romanticism obscures other truths.
The people who build their lives and homes out of other people's refuse are not viewed as eco-heroes by the societies they live in no more than people who rummage in dustbins are in the West. They are, for the most part, regarded as little better than the trash they handle.
They don't do this work because they want to, or because like middle-class Californian 'dumpster divers' they 'believe in recycling'. They do it because poverty and social inequality has given them a pitifully narrow range of options.
The sociology of trash is simple: the rich make it, the poor deal with it. The rich who make it are generally considered 'clean'; the poor who deal with it are considered 'dirty'.
It's a topsy-turvy sociology.
But then the whole issue of trash is pretty much upside-down and back-to-front.
For a start, there's the economics of waste.
We tend to think of industrial production as being mainly about manufacturers making things we need or just want which we then buy. This is what keeps money circulating and the economic roundabout going round.
What if, for instance, it weren't production that led to economic growth, but waste? Garbage. Trash. Pollution. Now that seems crazy.
Not so crazy though, if you take the example of the United States.
For every 100 kilograms of products manufactured, 3,200 kilograms of waste is created. 'We are far better at making waste than at making products,' concludes Paul Hawken, author, business person and environmentalist.
Meanwhile the US economy appears to be growing. According to GDP or Gross Domestic Product the conventional means of measuring growth it has grown at 2.5 per cent per year since 1973. Yet there is little evidence of improved lives, better infrastructure, higher wages, more leisure or greater economic security. Quite the contrary.
This is because GDP doesn't really measure growth in any meaningful sense. It measures money transactions and calls them economic growth. It is blind to whether this is harmful or beneficial to people and their environment.
So we end up with an insane situation, exemplified by the Exxon Valdez oil spill, where a disaster that causes long-term suffering to people, animals and the natural environment shows up as highly profitable because the clean-up and the insurance pay-outs involve lots of money changing hands.
If GDP were to exclude keeping people in prison, pollution and every bit of litter on the streets, then it's quite conceivable that the US economy would be shown not to be growing at all. What's growing is its production of waste and its capacity to lay waste.
Hawken proposes that, to remedy this, governments need to subtract such negative impacts from revenue. But, he says, 'unfortunately where economic growth is concerned, the Government uses a calculator with no minus sign'.1
Too much waste, too few holes
This isn't just a case of clashing economic approaches. The failure to look waste in the face and take it properly into account has led us down a perilous path.
Western lifestyles that are currently being exported evangelized even all over the world are phenomenally wasteful.
Citizens in the US, world leader in trashing, waste a million pounds (450 kilograms) in weight per person per year.
Don't believe it? Well consider this annual national garbage list: 1.6 billion kilos of carpet sent to landfills, 11 billion kilos of carbon dioxide chucked into the atmosphere, 2.7 billion kilos of polystyrene, 13 billion kilos of food, 136 billion kilos of organic and inorganic chemicals used in manufacturing and processing, and 320 billion kilos of hazardous waste generated by chemical production. If you count waste produced in extracting gas, coal, oil and minerals, that would add another 15 trillion kilos a year. And that's only part of it.1
What happens to it all?
A trip to a major landfill site is not everyone's idea of an excursion. But what you see there are the most amazing mountains of the stuff, much of it plastic-seeming, but still a veritable picnic for scavenging birds. Moving ominously and noisily around the heat and stench, like strange prehistoric beasts, are bulldozers, headlights glaring like eyes.
This is where most waste goes in the industrial world holes in the ground that no-one wants in their backyard. With reason: landfills are fraught with danger. They emit methane, they overheat, they leak - which becomes increasingly ominous as the quantity of chemical products dumped into landfills in the industrial world is expected to double between 1990 and 2005.2
Countries which are short of land, like Japan or Belgium, favour incinerating rubbish. This is no better; many experts say it's a lot worse. It creates air pollution, releasing toxins and dioxins into the atmosphere. More sophisticated incinerators have filters, but still leave residues of toxic ash that need to be buried somewhere.
A few years ago the US raised the alert. The big country had run out of landfill sites. This was in spite of its exporting waste to Canada and Mexico and, of course, many parts of the South. In this the US is not alone. Most developed countries export their waste.
What's more serious is that the North now produces more hazardous and toxic waste than it can accommodate on its own territory.
Lawrence Summers, World Bank Chief Economist, gained notoriety in 1991 when he suggested that Africa was under-populated and 'under-polluted' and so the West should send toxic waste there. But he was only reflecting on what was already happening. Since then the former countries of the Soviet Union have been added to the list of favoured dumping grounds.
Most serious of all is something that was brought home to me recently in quite a trivial way when my nephew opened the back of my defunct smoke-alarm to find a label saying: 'Contains radioactive material'. 'Why?' he innocently asked. I could not answer. The label did not indicate how one was to dispose of the thing.
The reason is, nobody knows. Today the total accumulation of used nuclear fuels in the world stands at 130,000 tonnes more than twice as much as in 1987. Most of this will be buried hundreds of metres below the earth's crust, although scientists recognize it will make its way back to the surface at some point.3
The Basel Convention, which with some success is trying to stop exports of toxic and hazardous waste from rich countries to those of the developing world, does not, significantly, cover nuclear waste. It's too big a problem for the nuclear countries. They want to keep their options open, which is very bad news indeed for people living in impoverished countries like North Korea.
The worlds ecological class system
The 'under-polluted' South
Lawrence Summers got it wrong, though, when he suggested that the countries of the South were 'under-polluted'. Visit any big city in the South and you can see it, feel it, smell it. The piles of garbage in Dar Es Salaam have become a major health hazard. Shanghai, Lagos and Mumbai aren't much better. Air quality in Taipei and Bangkok is the pits. In such industrializing countries of the South, water is rendered undrinkable due to chemical pollutants.
It's not just the North's rubbish that is being dumped on the South but also its dirtiest industrial production. With globalization, more and more companies have their goods made in the South where wages are lower and environmental controls are more lax.
And this is the rotten core of the matter.
For the main problem with trash is not its 'back end', as it were. It's not so much what we as individuals throw away, but the waste that has been incurred making the things we so abundantly consume. The focus is almost always on what we see the garbage cans, the refuse heaps. Not what we don't see.
According to Robert Ayres, an expert on industrial metabolism, about 94 per cent of materials extracted for use in manufacturing become waste before the product is even made. More waste still is generated during manufacture. Overall, he claims, US industry uses as much as 100 times more material and energy than is theoretically required to deliver the goods.
One way of tackling this criminal inefficiency is to bring in tougher legislation that encourages cleaner production and penalizes the waster and the polluter. Sometimes this works even before the laws come into force, as happened in certain parts of German industry . The idea of 'extending producer responsibility' is also gaining ground in other parts of Northern Europe.
Another way is to try to convince business that it can save money by being more efficient and creating less waste. This is the line taken by Amory Lovins, L Hunter Lovins and Ernst von Weizsäcker in their new study called Factor 4: Doubling Wealth, Halving Resource Use. It tells us how we can live twice as well, using half as much. If that doesn't sell the idea nothing will.4
Either way, something is going to have to happen. According to the Wuppertal Institute for Climate, Environment and Energy, arresting global warming and environmental degradation will require a 50-per-cent reduction in worldwide material consumption, and to do that industrial countries need to aim for a 90-per-cent reduction in their throughput of materials.5
The main part we, as individuals, can play is as consumers.
It's not a comfortable role to face up to.
When environmental thinker and writer Alan Thein Durning split the world into three ecological classes - 1.1 billion poor, 3.3 billion middle-income class, and 1.1 billion consuming class - he caused quite a stir in some quarters. People who did not consider themselves rich by their own standards were miffed to find themselves defined as part of a global consuming élite. But there's no avoiding it. If you live in the rich, industrialized part of the world your consumption - and the polluting wake you leave behind - is tremendous. A person living in the industrial world will consume 19 times more aluminium, 14 times more paper, 13 times more iron and steel, 10 times more energy, 6 times more meat and 3 times more fresh water than their fellow humans living in the developing world.6
The question Alan Durning asks, in his book of the same title, is one we need to keep asking: 'How much is enough?' The majority of people living in the South manage with limited resources. They use and re-use many of the things that people in the North and Australasia would automatically throw away. Bottles, bags, cans, rags, old rubber tyres.
People living in the North have limited resources too, though we don't recognize it half the time and certainly don't behave accordingly. As economist Herman Daly has pointed out, we are facing an historic juncture in which, for the first time, the limits to increased prosperity are not the lack of human-made capital but the lack of natural resources, or what is now sometimes called 'natural capital'. Plenty of sawmills, not enough trees, in other words.
Many people are responding by trying to alter their personal habits. Recycling is on the increase though it varies widely from region to region. In parts of Britain recycling has crept up to 5 per cent of household waste; in parts of Australia it's 15 per cent. But in some areas in Canada it's closer to 80 per cent. The greening of politicians and local authorities in some countries and Britain is a case in point is happening at a painfully slow rate. Other countries, like Germany, have galloped ahead and made mistakes, but there is at least a commitment to trying to create a different, more sustainable kind of economy.
Inevitably, when you look at trash you end up talking about values. Currently most industrial economies are still geared up to using as few people as possible, and thereby creating as little employment as possible to produce as much stuff as possible, much of which is trash or soon becomes it.
In other words, we have been trashing what is really of value people and their natural environment in the pursuit of things that have little real value: consumer items we mainly don't need.
There are practical things that we, as individuals, can do like recycle, re-use, consume carefully and generally consume a lot less. But there also needs to be quite a major mind-shift in the way our economies and our societies operate. We need, metaphorically speaking, to take the lid off the trash-can and turn it on its head. Only then will we get down to grappling with the beast in the bin. *
Copyright New Internationalist Magazine 1997