Waste is one of the planet's last great resource frontiers. From furniture made from up-cycled wood to gold extracted from computer circuit boards, artisans and multinational corporations alike are finding ways to profit from Waste while diverting materials from overcrowded landfills. Yet beyond these benefits, this "new" resource still poses serious risks to human health and the environment. In this unique book, Kate O'Neill traces the emergence of the global political economy of wastes over the past two decades. She explains how the emergence of Waste governance initiatives and mechanisms can help us deal with both the risks and the opportunities associated with the hundreds of millions - possibly billions - of tons of Waste we generate each year. Drawing on a range of fascinating case studies to develop her arguments, including China's role as the primary recipient of recyclable plastics and scrap paper from the Western world, "Zero-Waste" initiatives, the emergence of transnational Waste-pickers' alliances, and alternatives for managing growing volumes of electronic and food wastes, O'Neill shows how Waste can be a risk, a resource, and even a livelihood, with implications for governance at local, national, and global levels.
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Preface and Acknowledgments
1 The Global Political Economy of Waste
The Rise of the Global Waste Economy
Themes of the Book
Perspectives on Wastes
Outline of the Book
The Wider Significance of Wastes
2 Understanding Wastes
What are Wastes?
Tracking Wastes’ Journeys: Streams and Objects
“Where there’s Muck, there’s Brass”: Perspectives on the Value of Wastes
The Non-Material Value of Wastes
Wastes as Contingent Resources
3 Waste Work
Waste Work and Livelihoods
The Formal Waste Economy
The Informal Waste Economy (Economies)
Conflict on the Global Resource Frontier
Trends in Global Waste Work
4 Discarded Electronics
Electronic Wastes: What, Why, How Much?
E-Wastes’ Promise: Extractive Value …
… and its Perils: Magnified Risks
Does Urban Mining Achieve Its Potential?
On the Global Resource Frontier: The International Trade in E-Wastes
How Much E-Waste Crosses Borders?
Networks and Relationships
Governing Global Production, Disposal, and Flows of Discarded Electronics
Repair, Reuse, or Disposal? Building the “Informal Green Economy”
5 Food Waste
Food Waste and Food Loss
Food Waste on the Political Agenda
A Lengthy History
Causes and Regional Variations
Food Waste Disposal
#nofoodwaste:: Activism and Policy Entrepreneurs
Food Waste Governance
The View from the South
6 Plastic Scrap
The Global Reach of Plastics and Plastic Waste
China and the World’s Plastic Scrap
The Challenges of Plastics Recycling
China and the Scrap Trade
New Directions for Global Plastics Governance
Single-Use Consumer Plastics
Substitutes and Alternatives to Fossil Fuel-Based Plastics
A Global Plastics Treaty?
Global Governance of the Plastics Trade: Scrap or Waste?
Conclusion: A World without Waste?
Wastes as a Global Resource Frontier
Governance Challenges, Opportunities, and Initiatives
Other Cross-Cutting Themes
A World Without Waste? The Global Circular Economy
Selected Readings: Making Wastes Visible
End User License Agreement
Words for waste
Number of people living and working on the world’s ten largest waste dumps
E-waste generated globally by type and weight
China’s waste imports by country, 2007–2016
Major global waste management and resource recovery corporations
Plastic types, uses and recyclability
Perspectives on wastes
Definitions of waste
The major waste streams
Waste collection and removal
Controlled waste disposal and storage
Zero Waste and the Circular Economy
Statistics on food loss and waste
“Use by,” “best before,” or “best if used by”?
Table of Contents
Gavin Bridge & Philippe Le Billon, Oil, 2nd edition
Anthony Burke, Uranium
Jennifer Clapp, Food, 2nd edition
Peter Dauvergne & Jane Lister, Timber
Elizabeth R. DeSombre & J. Samuel Barkin, Fish
Kate Ervine, Carbon
David Lewis Feldman, Water
Gavin Fridell, Coffee
Derek Hall, Land
Andrew Herod, Labor
Kristy Leissle, Cocoa
Michael Nest, Coltan
Kate O’Neill, Waste
Bronwyn Parry and Beth Greenhough, Bioinformation
Ben Richardson, Sugar
Ian Smillie, Diamonds
Adam Sneyd, Cotton
Mark Thurber, Coal
Bill Winders, Grains
Copyright © Kate O’Neill 2019
The right of Kate O’Neill to be identified as Author of this Work has been asserted in accordance with the UK Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988.
First published in 2019 by Polity Press
Polity Press65 Bridge StreetCambridge CB2 1UR, UK
Polity Press101 Station LandingSuite 300Medford, MA 02155, USA
All rights reserved. Except for the quotation of short passages for the purpose of criticism and review, no part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system or transmitted, in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise, without the prior permission of the publisher.
A catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library.
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication DataNames: O’Neill, Kate, 1968- author.Title: Waste / Kate O’Neill.Description: Cambridge, UK ; Medford, MA, USA : Polity Press, 2019. | Includes bibliographical references and index.Identifiers: LCCN 2018061778 (print) | LCCN 2019000572 (ebook) | ISBN 9780745687438 (Epub) | ISBN 9780745687391 (hardback) | ISBN 9780745687407 (pbk.)Subjects: LCSH: Refuse and refuse disposal--Economic aspects. | Recycling (Waste, etc.) | International economic integration.Classification: LCC HD4482 (ebook) | LCC HD4482 .O54 2019 (print) | DDC 363.72/8--dc23LC record available at https://lccn.loc.gov/2018061778
The publisher has used its best endeavours to ensure that the URLs for external websites referred to in this book are correct and active at the time of going to press. However, the publisher has no responsibility for the websites and can make no guarantee that a site will remain live or that the content is or will remain appropriate.
Every effort has been made to trace all copyright holders, but if any have been overlooked the publisher will be pleased to include any necessary credits in any subsequent reprint or edition.
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For My Parents
Bob and Sally O’Neill
For encouraging a lifelong interest in trash and where it goes (and for childhood trips to the Canberra tip, where, according to my dad, you could rely on finding diplomats, politicians and retired admirals prospecting for secondhand treasures)
Basel Action Network
Best of Two Worlds
extended producer responsibility
Global Alliance for Incineration Alternatives (now known simply as GAIA)
Global Alliance of Waste Pickers
Global Waste Management Outlook
Institute for Scrap Recycling Industries
International Solid Waste Association
materials recovery facility
municipal solid waste
million tons (metric)
National Resources Defense Council
Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development
resin identification code
Recycling Industry Operating Standard
Sustainable Development Goals
Solving the E-waste Problem
Solid Waste Association of North America
United Nations Environment Programme
United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization
US Environmental Protection Agency
Women in Informal Employment: Globalizing and Organizing
Waste and Resource Action Programme
World Trade Organization
Sitting in my office many nights, weekends, and holidays, and writing about waste was something of a wrenching experience. As anyone who has taken the lid off their reusable coffee mug to see the remnants of last week’s latte staring right back at them knows, living a low-waste life is challenging for those of us who grew up in cultures of disposability. We make decisions about what we throw out, what we recycle, and what we buy or do not buy in the first place all the time, although we do not always think about the consequences of our decisions. This often means those discarded items are shipped to places overseas to be dismantled or recycled and resold.
This book is designed to make these journeys visible. It draws attention to the global markets that exist for discarded goods, and the livelihoods that depend on extracting value from what others have thrown away. It also makes visible the risks attendant on this new resource frontier, the growth of global activism around waste and recycling, and how actors engaged in governing these transactions are responding. It is less about individual consumer choices and behavior than about the systems in which our practices are embedded.
I am writing this at a time when levels of wastes – particularly plastic wastes – are higher than they ever have been on global, national, and local political agendas, and it is clear that a lot will change over the next few years. It is also true that I have had to leave a lot out of this short book (readers are encouraged to follow up on issues that interest them on their own). Despite all the challenges and problems, at the end of this writing process I felt moderately optimistic about our ability to address the global waste crisis, even if we can’t solve it.
Despite all the hours of solitary writing, this book is really the product of many interactions and conversations. One of the things I enjoy about working on waste is that anyone I talk to, anywhere, about what I do has a story to tell or a comment to make. Many of these made it into this book or informed the directions I chose. Therefore, first of all, I would like to thank everyone who took the time to engage with me at conferences and presentations, in class and on campus, at the gym, at airports, in restaurants, on hikes, etc., over the past several years and share their experiences and opinions on the topics in this book.
For particular help with reading, editing, and commenting on draft chapters, my special thanks to Alastair Iles, Erin Bergren, Raul Pacheco-Vega, and Manisha Anantharaman. I would also like to acknowledge my undergraduate research assistants, including Leila Hooshyear, Sierra Westhem, and Aubrey Hills. Thanks to Peter Dauvergne, Shannon Davis, Emily Polsby, Freyja Knapp, Louise Mellor, Aaron King (Seven Seas Hauling), Amy Mason, Scott Silva, Anna Yip, and the UC Berkeley Zero Waste community for inspiration. Josh Lepawsky and the editors at Welt-Sichten: Magazin für globale Entwicklung und ökumenische Zusammenarbeit helped me with figures and data. Jenny Weeks at The Conversation published my earlier pieces on China and Operation National Sword, which I drew on extensively. Likewise, many great people in the waste and discard studies communities on Twitter helped me out at various times with many queries, small and large, and I am immensely grateful for this community. Thanks also to Louise Knight, Sophie Wright, and Nekane Galdos at Polity Press for being so patient with me, and to two anonymous reviewers for their helpful comments.
Finally, thank you to my husband, Wil Burns, for helping out with ideas, support and logistical advice at many times during this process. Not to mention putting up with my ongoing commentary on what we should or should not be recycling (and in what condition) at any given moment.
This book is about waste – “what we do not want or fail to use” (Gourlay 1992) – as a global resource, a livelihood, and a source of risk. While other resources – timber, minerals, fish stocks – are coming under tremendous strain, wastes produced across all sectors of economic activity are growing in volume and in their potential for profit. A study published in The Anthropocene Review in 2017 estimated the cumulative total of the material output of collective human enterprise since the Industrial Revolution at 30 trillion tons (Zalasiewicz et al. 2017). Much of this accumulated stuff is still with us and creating a new geological stratum, of trash. This study, while speculative, makes two things clear: wastes do not disappear, and they are a potential reservoir of extractable resources.
Wastes are highly differentiated. Sewage, batteries, construction waste, discarded clothes, scrap paper and plastic, and nuclear waste all belong in this same broad category, but have very different origins, lifecycles, impacts, and values. They exist in households, in landfills, in factories, in the oceans, and in outer space. Satellite debris clogs the outer atmosphere, while old electronics pile up in peoples’ attics and basements. Wastes flow into the global commons: plastics flood the oceans and landfill gas emissions exacerbate climate change. Some wastes – particularly organic wastes such as sewage – biodegrade quickly; others have a far longer half-life. Newspaper, banana peels, or orange peels can decompose in a matter of weeks under the right conditions. However, this process takes hundreds of years for some of the most common non-organic wastes, including plastics, ceramic, and glass. Nuclear waste (and some chemical wastes) stays toxic for tens of thousands of years, to the point where government authorities have considered creating symbols for “hazard” or “danger” that will be decipherable to humans once our own civilization has crumbled. One of the symbols considered by a US Department of Energy working group was a facsimile of Edvard Munch’s famous painting, The Scream.1
Wastes are not just thrown away. They are reused, recycled, or reprocessed for the valuable elements they contain, and to protect our overburdened environment. Discarded electronics contain copper, gold, and other metals. Iron and steel pipes and girders can be extracted from the rubble of demolished buildings. Nutrients and energy can be obtained from discarded food. Creating a global circular economy, which in its ideal form would see nothing discarded and everything reused, could allow us to live within planetary limits.
Evaluating something as a waste or a resource, even in everyday transactions, is, however, highly subjective. It depends on context and perceptions. As an illustration, some years ago a friend of mine moved with her family to Zambia. After they had unpacked their cardboard moving boxes, someone came to their door and asked to collect them. They negotiated a price. It turned out that while my friend thought the price was what they would pay to get rid of the boxes, it was in fact what the collector wanted to pay them to take and reuse the boxes. This example, at a small scale, illustrates how one person’s waste is, to another, a valuable resource or commodity, creating complications for transactions, markets, and governance. This book is, therefore, also about how complicated a resource waste is. It also poses risks to those who deal with it: to workers, local communities, those who produce it, and those who ship it. Its value varies with even slight fluctuations in market conditions. These factors create the need for governance that can take these complexities into account. Such governance is still under-developed.
Economic growth and industrialization, especially in the twentieth century, transformed the relationship between wastes and resources in the industrialized world. With the expansion of the global economy after World War Two, people in wealthy nations could, for the first time, experience disposable consumption on a mass scale, generating what is now known as municipal solid waste (MSW). MSW includes plastic, paper, metal, and other non-organic wastes generated by households and businesses. Large-scale industrial production generated its own waste, including metal, concrete, and glass. In addition, the era was marked by massive increases in the production of chemical wastes, many of them toxic and highly persistent (lasting for a very long time) in the environment.
Waste became a problem to be dealt with, rather than something to be collected and reused. Landfills and waste incineration facilities expanded in size and number. Large-scale municipal and industrial waste collection, removal, and disposal services meant that for most middle-class and upper-middle-class communities, wastes were to be taken out of sight and out of mind. As a result, the problem of waste followed the same pattern as other types of environmental risk, where the costs moved away from people with socioeconomic power and towards people with less power and money. With the rise of free trade and economic globalization came opportunities to ship wastes, especially hazardous wastes, overseas to poorer countries or indeed among richer ones (Vallette and Spalding 1990). In the 1990s up to 90 percent of the hazardous waste trade was legal and carried out between member states of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), but still imposed risks on recipient communities (O’Neill 2000). Resistance to waste facilities helped spark the environmental justice movement in the US (Bullard 1991), and movements and campaigns across Europe and around the world. International non-governmental organizations (NGOs) including Greenpeace International and the Third World Network combatted the “toxic trade” – waste dumping from rich to poor countries.2
Campaigns against the hazardous waste trade revealed wastes’ global reach, and the extent to which people in the wealthy North were outsourcing their risk and the costs of waste disposal. Subsequently, literal mountains of solid waste in mega-landfills around the world, piles of old electronics and computers and, most recently, devastating pictures of discarded plastics clogging the world’s oceans have brought home the extent of this crisis. The impacts on communities living on and around these sites fueled global activism.
These revelations forced new thinking about extracting and recycling items of value from waste streams at a far larger scale than in previous times, from goods to metals to energy. Informal workers and large multinational corporations look to “urban mines” to extract resources and make a living. They also propelled thinking about how to reduce this waste stream, reducing its flow, and diverting its contents away from final disposal and back into productive use.
Several factors have driven this new global waste economy. First, we can now estimate how much value is trapped in waste. For instance, the total value of all raw materials present in discarded electronics was estimated at approximately €55 billion in 2016 (see chapter 4; Baldé et al. 2017). Large multinational corporations as well as local trash pickers have direct economic interests, driven by the need for recycled raw materials, new energy sources, and the prospect of extracting gold, copper, and other valuable metals, or simply for a living pulling out useful parts and objects from others’ discarded goods.
Second, human production and consumption generate too much waste, to the extent that (despite our inventiveness), we are running out of space to put it. Higher levels of wealth, consumption, production, and population growth rates help explain the rise of waste generation, as do faster rates of urbanization, particularly in developing countries.
Two recent studies attempt to quantify global wastes and the challenges they pose. The Global Waste Management Outlook (Wilson et al. 2015), was produced by the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) and the International Solid Wastes Association (ISWA), an industry association and a leading authority in this area. It estimates total global production of municipal, commercial, and industrial wastes and waste from construction and demolition at around 7–10 billion tons per year.
What a Waste: A Global Review of Solid Waste Management in its first and second editions (Hoornweg and Bhada-Tata 2012; Kaza et al. 2018) was produced by the World Bank. It estimated that MSW production has risen ten-fold in the past century. In 2010 the world produced 3.5 million tons per day; by 2025 that total could reach six million tons per day. Rates of waste generation will rise most steeply in Africa and South Asia, overall and per capita. China produced 520,550 tons per day in 2005 but could produce 1.4 million tons daily by 2025. Under business-as-usual scenarios, we will not reach a point of global “peak waste,” when urban populations stabilize and waste generation levels off, until the next century (Hoornweg et al. 2013). In the second edition of this report (Kaza et al. 2018), the authors predict that waste generation will outpace population growth by more than double by 2050 (p. xi), reaching a total of 3.4 billion tons annually.
Increased use of disposable products, such as singleserving plastic drink bottles or packaging waste, has added to the world’s trash heaps. In 2017, The Guardian reported that a million plastic bottles are bought around the world every minute and barely 10 percent of those are recycled back into bottles. Such wastes are dumped into “monster” landfills in and around growing mega-cities such as Mexico City, Beijing, and Lagos. The world’s 50 largest open landfills directly affect the daily lives of 64 million people who live nearby (ISWA 2016, p. 16). Millions of tons of plastics have spilled into the oceans, where they persist for hundreds of years, spinning in massive gyres. A 2018 study estimated that at least 79,000 tons of ocean plastic are floating inside an area of 1.6 million square kilometers, an area twice the size of Texas or three times the size of France, depending on one’s point of view (Lebreton et al. 2018).
Third, changing pressures and patterns of globalization have expanded the reach of the global waste economy. The volume of the global waste trade has significantly increased, and the types of wastes shipped have diversified. Waste supply chains are lengthening, spanning thousands of miles across continents rather than hundreds of miles across a neighboring border.
Traditional perceptions of the waste trade as a North-to-South problem have broken down as it has become apparent that waste supply chains are now more complex than 20 years ago. These trends have been driven by open global trade rules, greater movement of goods, cheaper shipping, and the outsourcing of cheap labor needed for basic recycling and disposal processes to countries in the global South. They have also galvanized activism around the world, as waste pickers (informal waste workers) and other global activist groups mobilize against the trade. For example, the South–South trade in e-waste is overtaking the North–South trade, overturning popular perceptions of perpetrators and victims.
In 2018, a single seismic event reshaped the global politics of waste and made many aware of how much waste recycling and disposal has become a global business. Until early 2018, China took in close to half of the plastics thrown into recycling bins in the US and other wealthy nations (along with many other, higher quality types of scrap), to feed its growing manufacturing centers. In 2017, it announced it would effectively halt this practice. It had received too much plastic, paper, and other low-quality scrap, often too contaminated to easily reprocess, and was tired of being seen as the “world’s garbage dump.” Chapter 6 goes into this case in depth, but “Operation National Sword,” as this policy is called, sent shockwaves through recycling and waste management industries, and demonstrated how vulnerable the global waste economy, the subject of this book, is.
This book has three overarching themes: the emergence of wastes as a global resource frontier, the magnified risks that attend this process, and the governance challenges (and innovations) these two together have generated. These trends are often exemplified in the global trade in different sorts of waste, and in shifting patterns of foreign direct investment in waste management and resource extraction around the world.
Wastes, on a large scale, have become one of the planet’s newest global resource frontiers. As early as 1969, an undersecretary of the US Department of the Interior told a waste management seminar in Houston that “trash is our only growing resource” (Crooks 1993, p. 22). In 2011, the Bureau of International Recycling, the global scrap industry association, proclaimed “the end of the waste era,” a statement echoed by environmentalists, industry leaders, and politicians – that wastes are no longer “unwanted or surplus to requirements.” Instead, past – and present – wastes will help fuel a richer and more sustainable future.
Demand for extracted materials to be reprocessed or recycled into new products or inputs for industrial and consumer use is rising in the world’s fastest growing economies. The rise of the e-waste trade and the extent to which China became the Western world’s major repository for plastic, paper, and other scrap exemplify this trend. The global frontier is occupied by workers, by municipal authorities, multinational corporations from waste, energy and mining sectors, international organizations, activist groups, and a whole network of brokers who oversee shipping of wastes from point of production to point of disposal.
Resource frontiers open at the limits of scarcity. As Edward Barbier points out, economic growth is not just about the allocation of scarce resources, it is also about finding and exploiting new resource frontiers and shipping those resources back to where they will be processed and sold. A frontier as used here and in relevant fields is “an area or source of unusually abundant natural resources and land relative to labor and capital” (Barbier 2015, p, 57; see also Peluso 2017). Sometimes the frontier is spatial: the Arctic, as sea ice melts due to climate change, is described as a new resource frontier for oil and other mineral resources. Sometimes technology opens the frontier. Deep seabed mining has only recently become a real possibility, although – with oil prices low and easier to reach sources abundant – it is not yet cost-effective to undertake.
The term frontier is not neutral. Its use deliberately harkens back to gold rushes in the mid-nineteenth century around the Pacific Rim and to the race for land by settlers in the US West, regardless of the people already living there. It evokes competition, conflict, even violence, and the displacement of existing resource users or local communities. It also evokes the possibility of large profits reaped in the absence of institutionalized governance.
Waste is a global resource frontier in singular ways. Joseph Schumpeter describes development in this context as “the conquest of a new source of supply of raw materials … irrespective of whether this source already exists or whether it has first to be created” (Schumpeter 1961, p. 66, quoted in Barbier). It does not have a specific geographic location, let alone a distant one. Waste is all around us, in landfills, incineration facilities, attics and basements, and open dumps in or near all the places human beings live, for decades. Wastes are also highly mobile. As subsequent case study chapters show, electronic, plastic, and food wastes and scrap (along with used clothing, second-hand cars, and used tires) are easily and often shipped across and within national borders.
This frontier has been opened by economic need (the real or anticipated scarcity of virgin resources), technology (waste-to-energy, metal extraction techniques), and by an abundance of capital and cheap labor. Competition and conflict at this frontier happen as corporations and communities compete for market access, market shares, and livelihoods. As with other natural resources, processes of enclosure, such as capping a landfill or fencing it off, exclude traditional users who may have treated that resource as common property, and as their livelihood.
Waste’s exploitation has an environmental as well as an economic rationale. Corporate, government, and civil society actors frame waste exploitation and reuse as critical components of a sustainable, or green, economy. Waste-to-energy companies highlight their role in reducing greenhouse gas emissions from traditional energy sources. Multinational corporations engaged in urban mining and small-scale municipal recycling companies alike tout the environmental services they provide through extracting or reusing metals.
The nature of wastes as a global resource frontier found in and around human settlements highlights how local communities, authorities, waste workers, and other local actors are embedded in the global waste economy. Waste is not a unique resource in that respect, but its local ubiquity and its ability to travel the globe highlight its special characteristics. Waste needs to be re-imagined as a global resource, not a local problem. Making this frontier visible is the only way to create effective governance mechanisms that enable the reuse of these valuable resources while mitigating the magnified risks outlined in the following section. We see it in the cases addressed in this book, as we look at waste work and labor, particularly in the global South, and at the international trade in electronic wastes and in scrap, from steel to plastic and paper.
Second, wastes have always been characterized by risk, even as they are treated more and more as a resource. These risks have become magnified as waste generation, movements, and impacts have grown – and globalized – over the past decades. The negative impacts of wastes have always disproportionately affected the most economically disadvantaged, who often belong to racial or ethnic minority groups, but geographic distancing of waste disposal from its point of production has exacerbated these risks.
“Distancing” is literal: waste can end up, through trade or the circulation of ocean currents, thousands of miles from where it is generated. It is also figurative, disconnected from and out of the thoughts of those who produce the waste in the first place. Few question where their waste plastic, paper, and electronics go, or who takes care of it. Distancing as a concept helps make sense of the inequities of our globalized world (Clapp 2002; Princen 2002). It applies equally well to global consumption and production, and the supply chains that link them.
Risks associated with waste management and the solutions to the waste crisis have magnified too. Mega-landfills sprawl around the world’s largest and fastest growing cities. They are massive and support large communities. For example, Jam Chakro in Pakistan covers 202 hectares (500 acres). It supports an informal recycling community of 5000 and five million people live within a ten-kilometer radius. Bantar Gebang in Indonesia takes 230,000 tons of waste per year, and already holds 28–40 million tons. These are only two of the world’s 50 largest “monsterdumps” (ISWA 2016).
Massive accumulations of wastes pose very literal risks. People have been killed in “waste slides” around megadump sites. From December 2015 to June 2016, over 750 deaths worldwide could be directly attributed to poor waste management in dumpsites (ISWA 2016). Smoke from burning waste causes further health hazards. Fires in tire dumps, for example, can blaze for weeks, months, even years, discharging toxins and oil residue into the air and earth around them. The smoke from a 2012 fire in a dump in Kuwait that contained over five million tires could be seen from space.
Recycling plants have moved from the US and Europe to sites with cheaper labor, and laxer regulations, in South and East Asia, and in Africa. Waste work remains difficult and dangerous, and the handling, processing, and recycling of municipal and industrial wastes is often carried out by informal sector workers, or waste pickers, unprotected by health and safety regulations or job security. Waste crime extends across national borders: Interpol, the international policing agency, tackles e-wastes illegally trafficked across borders as part of its environmental crimes division. Incineration too, even when touted as clean, climate-friendly waste-to-energy production, can harm local communities if emissions are not controlled.
The most hazardous wastes persist, leaving a toxic legacy for generations to come. Not a single gram of high-level nuclear wastes has been safely disposed of or sequestered for the long term. Spent nuclear fuel rods continue to be stored in pools around nuclear power plants. The 2011 Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant disaster is a case in point. A series of meltdowns were triggered after the Tohoku earthquake (9.0 on the Richter scale) and tsunami shut down the emergency power generators. When spent fuel rods in cooling ponds next to the plant overheated, significant quantities of radiation were released into the atmosphere. Over 150,000 nearby residents were evacuated (most of whom have never returned), radiation was found in food produced over 300 km away, and the accident significantly diminished the prospects for new nuclear power plants worldwide.
Increased generation of MSW in urban areas, particularly in developing and emerging economies, strains existing collection infrastructure. At least 2 billion people worldwide still lack access to solid waste collection and at least 3 billion people lack access to controlled waste disposal facilities (Wilson et al. 2015). In 2015, Lebanese authorities sparked a crisis when they closed a major landfill. Pictures of a river of trash in the Beirut suburbs – a waterway full of white plastic garbage bags – flashed around the world in 2015, although they could not convey the stench that permeated the city or the threats to public health the trash posed. A contract between the government and a British company, which would have shipped the waste to Russia, had fallen through, leaving an ongoing crisis, and conflict between Lebanon’s government and its population.
Finally, global markets for secondary materials are fragile. They remain subject to the ups and downs of the global economy and the prices of virgin material, or to sudden changes in the policies of a dominant buyer like China (Jolly 2007; Xiarchos and Fletcher 2009). For one, scrap metals have not, unlike primary metals, historically had futures markets, which serve to stabilize prices in the face of shocks and short-term volatility. Scrap metals have smaller margins of profitability than primary metals, therefore price changes affect their markets far more.
This vulnerability affects both large scrap brokers in the US and informal workers in South Africa who must walk miles to sell scrap metal they collect (Schenck et al. 2017). The 2008 market crash left thousands of tons of scrap metal stranded in ports. China’s enforcement of restrictions on scrap imports left queues of container ships loaded with discarded plastics in limbo, waiting outside ports. In a globalized market, exogenous and endogenous shocks have rapid knock-on effects on workers, industry, and local governments, who lack the capacity to shore themselves up against these risks.
The global waste crisis is highly complex. It extends across international borders and into the oceans, the atmosphere, and even outer space, but it is also hyper-local as wastes pile up on streets and communities mobilize against incinerators and landfills in their neighborhoods. Many actors are involved in the business of producing, collecting, disposing of, and recycling wastes, often with directly conflicting interests. Accurate data are hard to obtain, making responsibility for producing waste-related pollution hard to pin down. Wastes have built up around the world to an extent beyond our capacity to deal with them. They are piling up in the growing mega-cities in Asia and Africa that do not have the infrastructure to deal with them. They inflict environmental injustices and, as we shall see in later chapters, this leads to contention about how to deal with them, whether as a risk (waste) or a resource (scrap).
Understanding waste as a globalized resource frontier has fundamentally challenged traditional paradigms of waste governance. It can no longer be governed simply as something at the end of its useful life. But can wastes be grouped with governance of traditional extractive resources, such as timber, oil, or minerals? This understanding of waste also makes the global politics of waste highly visible. Technology will not solve our waste problems if the worst risks can more cheaply or easily be foisted on others living thousands of miles away. People engaged in global waste governance now need to figure out how to extract and utilize resources contained in wastes while minimizing risks to the vulnerable and sharing benefits.
The chapters that follow examine these governance challenges at different jurisdictional levels, and how they are starting to be met. Campaigns against food waste have led to innovative governance solutions. Various actors, including the scrap industry are considering enabling labeling, or certification, of scrap safe to ship across borders. Cities are taking the lead in implementing Zero Waste initiatives, and activist alliances are transforming the role of informal sector workers at home and globally. Existing international agreements, such as the 1989 Basel Convention on the Control of Transboundary Movements of Hazardous Wastes and Their Disposal, are proving inadequate to govern the new global waste economy. The actors developing and implementing the 2015 UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) have embraced waste reduction and zero waste targets, but the SDGs are non-binding normative goals, not hard directives that nation states must comply with.
The waste activist landscape has also transformed. Activist groups influence governance initiatives and create their own. New networks span the gap between global NGOs and community-based groups. These include the Global Alliance of Waste Pickers (GlobalRec), and GAIA, which campaigns against incineration and for zero waste alternatives. The Basel Action Network (BAN), which has long opposed the hazardous waste trade and advocated for a ban, now focuses on ending e-waste trading from North to South. A growing global “right to repair” movement is pushing against planned obsolescence in the electronics industry. As the crisis of plastic pollution in the oceans unfolds, ocean-related organizations have teamed up with waste and chemicals groups to push the United Nations to take action. Major NGOs – such as the Natural Resources Defense Council and the World Resources Institute – have added food waste to their portfolio. Research NGOs, such as UK-based Waste and Resource Action Programme (WRAP), do invaluable work in increasing knowledge and political transparency around consumer waste.
Zero Waste activism has also achieved critical mass in the past decade or so, visible on college campuses, in municipal policy programs, and at high level discussions of sustainable development goals in the United Nations. Zero Waste activists push for policies and programs aimed at maximizing diversion of wastes away from landfills towards recycling and reuse, and reduction of waste production. High-profile foundations, most notably the Ellen MacArthur Foundation (founded in 2010) have taken on building a global circular economy as their mission. Entities such as the Closed Loop Fund and Foundation leverage private and public funding to build new waste infrastructure in the US and overseas. Waste associations, such as ISWA (the International Solid Waste Association), SWANA (the Solid Waste Association of North America) and ISRI (the Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries) represent their industries, do data gathering and research, and push for sustainable waste management solutions.
Existing waste governance measures, from the global community or national and local governments and communities, are often controversial. Crafting governance initiatives within the new global waste economy must take into account many competing interests and influences. Waste trading (of all sorts) is a particularly thorny example. Banning shipment of wastes across national borders,
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