A rubbish heap of issues

Emma Blackmore's picture
Guest blog by
8 April 2010

In belt-tightening times, it’s not surprising that consumption often drops. The UK is a case in point. Happily, consumers there are wasting less too.

The Waste and Recycling Action Programme (WRAP) reported that in the UK, households throw away half a tonne of food-related waste each year (or a third of all household food purchased). This costs the UK approximately £12 billion a year in disposal costs alone – over £1000 per household.

Add in the costs arising from environmental externalities, such as the 20 million tonnes of carbon dioxide estimated to be released each year from rotting food waste, and we see rubbish hides a heap of issues.

But the good news is that in the UK, there has been a 3 per cent decrease in municipal waste and 2 per cent increase in recycling during the recession. In addition, the amount of waste sent to landfill has decreased by 8 per cent.

Though global figures are hard to come by, anecdotal evidence suggests that the recession has brought a much-needed respite for the world’s landfills.

In recession-hit Dubai, for instance, waste volume declined by 22 per cent in 2009 as construction and demolition slowed.

Waste, Inc.
But waste within national borders is one thing. When it travels, it’s quite another.

Waste is big business. Some waste is exported from the developed world to the developing world.

For many poor people in the developing world the reuse or breaking down of waste — particularly e-waste from electronic equipment, which contains copper and other metals — represents an important source of livelihood, although a difficult, toxic and dangerous one.

But the incentives are very real. It is possible to extract more gold out of a tonne of electronic circuitry than from a tonne of gold-bearing rock. However, this trade operates at the margins of global illegality, due to the fact that e-waste often contains hazardous materials. Despite increased regulation, the informal trade continues.

But there are signs that the recycling of e-waste, and waste in general, can be undertaken in an efficient and safe manner in the developing world, such as in Bangalore in India, where local initiatives have transformed the gathering and treatment of such waste. In Curitiba in Brazil, 70 per cent of the city's rubbish is recycled by its residents. Once a week, a truck collects paper, cardboard, metal, plastic and glass that has been sorted in the city's homes. The city's paper recycling alone saves the equivalent of 1200 trees a day.

As well as the environmental benefits, money raised from selling materials goes into social programmes, and the city employs homeless people and recovering alcoholics in its garbage separation plant. In low-income neighbourhoods recyclable material can be exchanged for groceries.

Does less waste in developed countries mean fewer livelihood opportunities and greater poverty in developing countries? This can in any case hardly be advocated as a sustainable solution.

Here again is the overreliance of the genuinely poor on a risky trade, and one that is inextricably linked to consumerism. Clearly there are insufficient livelihoods alternatives to lure a significant number of people out of the trade. So what can be done to improve the situation? Clearly, our seemingly unsustainable consumerism is a major driver of the trade. In the developed world, for example, we only keep mobile phones for an average of 18 months before upgrading them.

But the developed world isn’t predicted to remain the major source of e-waste — in 2030, developing countries will boast 400 to 700 million obsolete computers, compared to only 200 to 300 million in the developed world. This will necessitate better management of e-waste trade within developing countries.

As this trade momentarily dips in the recession, how can we provide potential solutions that address the harmful consequences of the trade but recognise its role as a livelihood source? How can we increase the sustainability of the production and consumption of waste? While consumption is clearly the cause of the trade, harmful ‘backyard’ recycling is a symptom. India and Brazil are giving us potential snapshots of how we can better manage the symptoms, but can we, and how should we, address the cause?