Wasting Good Waste

In the United States, President George W. Bush suggested Americans “go shopping” instead of concern themselves with war and terror and the looming economic disaster. President Barack Obama urges “consumer spending” to “stimulate the economy.” Neither leader acknowledges publicly that such consumption generates mountains of waste that, eventually, ends up on our planet’s land, sea, and air.

According to UNEP, the richest 20 percent of the world’s people “account for 86 percent of total private consumption expenditure, [ consume] 68 percent of all electricity, 84 percent of all paper, and own 87 percent of all automobiles.”

Perhaps indicative of why leaders fail ordinary people, embattled U.S. National Economic Council adviser Larry Summers as a senior World Bank official noted in a 1991 internal memo: “the economic logic behind dumping a load of toxic waste in the lowest wage country is impeccable….” Such mindsets in high places replicate trashy policies for trash by those whose own trash is out of sight out of mind.

Despite compromised leadership ordinary people everywhere are connecting the dots: the underbelly of material consumption is a vicious cycle. From micro “shop ’til you drop” as entertainment to macro policies – military supply chains that ensure access to cross-border natural resources, the global waste stream is an equal opportunity threat. Waging war, manufacturing, importing and exporting, advertising, consuming, discarding, and dismantling poses a critical dilemma: Stop…and the global economy deteriorates; Continue…and the global environment deteriorates.

The waste stream offers degrees of complexity that depend on location. In California’s San Francisco Bay I live in a condo on a portion of a lovely island that is landfill. Our desultory recycling program offers a choice: remove paper, plastic, and glass from “other” garbage and toss into the skip marked “recycling”…or toss everything into the unmarked skip. Either way anonymous collectors come twice a week to carry it off; most of my fellow condo dwellers do not know – or care – where it goes.

In South Africa’s KwaZulu Natal I live near a portion of the Valley of a Thousand Hills escarpment recently zoned for a vertical pyramid of industrial and consumer waste. As it obliterates unique biomes this noisome eyesore, a beacon to a failure of human imagination, cannot fail to despoil vast swathes of the Valley below when buffeted by increasingly strong wind storms associated with climate change.

Now I understand, even take my hat off to, Somali “pirates” who defend their shores against rich countries that dump toxic waste on Somalia’s coast. What the Larry Summers mindset does not take into account is these “lowest wage” earning countries will fight back – by any means necessary.

For even the least among us imagine a better life. A few miles from the doomed escarpment, at the Msunduzi municipal waste dump, informal waste or rag pickers sift through trash and recycle and reuse what they can. Yet they are considered nuisances – even criminals – eligible for arrest, particularly at sites where they compete with formal recycling businesses. Yet they persist.

Environmental justice activists told the South African government,“You can not isolate or push poor people from recycling waste in the streets and at dumps because that is where they earn a livelihood.” Director of the NGO groundWork Bobby Peek said in a radio interview, “Corporations of the 1950s molded peoples’ thinking toward consumerism and, while we do generate a lot of waste, we need to ensure that it does not actually become waste but that it is recycled and reused.” Now this nation’s courts and regulations recognize that before government makes policy, “they have to negotiate with the poorest of the poor.” After all, Peek said, “This is what democracy does.”

Prior to 2008 when the Waste Act was passed in South Africa, there was no effective legislation for waste. As the Waste Act slowly comes online the Department of Water Affairs and Forestry (DWAF) presents minimum requirements to municipalities to deal with waste in accordance with the Act. Most sites are simply dumps rather than the planned landfills that are supposed to consider many factors including geology, geomorphology, ecology, and using lining to cut down on leachate that may contaminate surrounding areas.

As Waste Campaign Manager for groundWork Musa Chamane organizes waste pickers around the country to fight for their rights. The sites Chamane visits invariably have waste pickers who tell him they have been waiting for assistance from someone like him. He says that most pickers would like to work as a group or cooperative as this presents opportunities to exert more power and to earn more money. “Many of these people are divided from one another and work alone at waste sites or in the streets. They have many challenges.”

One challenge is that DWAF’s minimum requirements do not allow waste to be recovered at landfill sites. Yet landfill sites often accept waste from wealthy urban areas that contains items of high value to waste pickers. Consequently, pickers persistently breach the sites…and run into trouble with site managers, legal workers, and site security. Besides abuse by the municipality pickers suffer compromised health, infections, and injuries from medical waste, broken glass, and metal fragments.

Organizing the pickers allows Chamane to assist as they pursue written agreements with site owners. Over time, the peace of mind that comes with such agreements allows waste pickers to develop micro economies that make their work more efficient and less hazardous. They can purchase wheel barrows to cart away recyclables or rent vehicles to deliver goods faster, purchase gloves, masks and medication to treat work-related injuries, and feed their families regularly. Moreover, they experience the dignity due all human beings.

Musa Chamane states, “We cannot solve a problem with a problem. Waste pickers are doing a service [that] could force governments toward recycling rather than, say, waste incineration that, essentially, burns money [that] generates an income if recycled. We need to move toward being a waste minimizing culture that emphasizes recycling.”

Human beings have the unique capacity to imagine. We also have the capacity to collaborate. Imagine a collaboration that brings the powerful to listen to the powerless. Imagine implementing the generative ideas that will arise in such a collaboration. Imagine a waste stream that minimizes waste…and maximizes human potential.

SUSAN GALLEYMORE is author of Long Time Passing: Mothers Speak about War and Terror, host of Stanford University’s Raising Sand Radio, and a former “military mom” and GI Rights Counselor. Contact her at media@mothersspeakaboutwarandterror.org.

SUSAN GALLEYMORE is author of Long Time Passing: Mothers Speak about War and Terror, host of Stanford University’s Raising Sand Radio, and a former “military mom” and GI Rights Counselor. Contact her at media@mothersspeakaboutwarandterror.org.