Do not waste waste

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By Freek Colombijn.

It is a truism to state that the amount of solid waste produced daily is enormous. Mount Everest has become a symbol of just how widespread the waste problem has become. Mountaineers have left an estimated 50 tons of waste on its slopes, including bottles, food containers, broken equipment, even over two hundred dead bodies. In 2010 a party of climbers on a cleaning mission collected about 2 tons of solid waste in the area above 8,000 m. and these missions have been repeated regularly since then. Nowadays climbers are obliged by law to bring down 8 kg of waste, the estimated average amount which each person takes up. This does not include the 12 tons of human faeces annually left on the mountain, posing a serious health risk. Another figure often quoted to draw attention to the magnitude of the waste problem is the 20 billion disposable diapers dumped in the US each year (3.5 million tons of waste). 

Although the centre of gravity lies in cities, it is certainly not a uniquely urban problem. Cities in the Global South collect only 50-80 per cent of the refuse generated in them and in cities like Dar Es Salaam and Lusaka it is as little as 10 per cent. Bangalore, the centre of India’s information technology industry and once known as India’s Garden City, is dubbed ‘Garbage City’ nowadays. Smokey Mountain is a landfill in Manila, which had to be closed because the rotting garbage generated so much heat it combusted spontaneously.

The subtext to such faits divers in the news is that waste is a problem. While waste deposited in the wrong place does undoubtedly pose an environmental and health risk, I propose the perspective be changed and waste be considered an enormous opportunity for human societies. 

A similar position is taken by Martin O’Brien in his fascinating book with the telling title A crisis of waste? He makes the point that for centuries people in England have lived in the midst of waste and made good use of it. For example, the scientific revolution which was part and parcel of the Industrial Revolution could not have spread as fast as it did without the rags which formed the resource for the paper on which technical inventions were disseminated. The rags were so precious that their export was banned in England (and also in France, Spain, Portugal and the Netherlands). In the nineteenth century, Britain imported rags from as far away as Australia, China and America, an early example of global trade in waste. O’Brien asserts that waste is ‘absolutely central to life’ and ‘the developed and wealthy societies in the world today should not be construed as “consumer societies” but as “rubbish societies”.’

Two years ago a landslide at the major landfill in Addis Ababa, the capital city of Ethiopia, killed 113 waste-pickers living on the dumpsite. The waste-pickers were depicted in the Western media as poor people who should not have been there; their lives were a misery, even perhaps devoid of human dignity; of course the presence of the waste was itself a huge problem. However, when we consider waste as an opportunity and not a problem, suddenly we see the waste-pickers in Addis Ababa in a new light. Actually their work is very useful to society. The landfill is an enormous repository of scarce resources, which are recycled as effectively as possible with the appropriate equipment provided to do this given the stage of the local technology. Therefore the goal of policy interventions should not be to remove the waste-pickers nor, for instance, should the waste be burned in incinerators, but ways should be sought to allow them to work more safely and more efficiently. As long as we see rubbish as, indeed, waste, precious resources are being ‘wasted’. The societal importance of the academic study of waste is to show how rubbish, in endless manifestations, is a vital resource and should be treated accordingly, not only in the Global South, but anywhere in the world.

Freek Colombijn – UHD, Associate Professor at Vrije Universiteit.

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