Thursday, July 11, 2013

The planet is drowning in waste

The planet is being overwhelmed by waste of all kinds, from plastic bags to throwaway digital devices. Even remote areas such as Alaskan beaches, often refuges for rare species, are increasingly blighted by tonnes of indestructible   objects and harmful and unsightly refuse.

The UK produces some 228 million tonnes of waste a year. In addition to household rubbish, there are growing mountains of agricultural and industrial  waste, as well as by-products from from power generation such as toxic nuclear waste. 

The waste issue has become so serious that the government has been forced to work on a “waste prevention programme”. The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs is due to publish the result of a consultation this December.

The way in which leading electronic brands brazenly defy the letter and spirit of laws and regulations is a global issue. Over the last decades a new and dangerous situation has arisen as millions of digital devices are used and jettisoned after only months of use.

As electronic waste increases exponentially on a global scale, a new study from India highlights that even where rules and regulations are in place, implementing them is another matter.

The report reveals that state pollution control boards and implementing agencies have failed to put any systems in place in the two years since the rules came into force.

The way in which companies evade regulation in India is naturally as true in other countries, including Bangladesh, China and Pakistan, Ghana and Nigeria which have become dumping grounds, often from richer states, spawning an escalating e-waste crisis

Short Circuit, a wide-ranging report by the Gaia Foundation, documents the scale of electronic waste on a global scale. It says that what we see as “re-cycling” is in fact turned into “down-cycling”, and can give people (consumers), a “false sense of security”.

Using a Buddhist term “Bardo”, the report says that humanity is at a critical juncture and that this requires a different view of our relationship with the earth. Amongst other proposals, the report lays down some excellent strategies for “zero waste”.

These are: reducing consumption and discards; reusing discards; extended producer responsibility; comprehensive recycling; comprehensive composting or bio-digestion of organic materials; citizen participation; a ban on waste incineration; effective policies, regulations, incentives and financing
structures to support these systems.

You could add to the list by including a ban on unessential packaging and the use of non-recyclables; including waste products within the production process a whole; the phasing out of landfill as a form of waste disposal; the nature and source of materials to be labelled on all products; products to be vetted for built-in obsolescence; the standardisation of interfaces for all devices and electronic products; the re-use of materials, especially metals and minerals; and resources  allocated for training in up-cycling skills.

The speeding up of built-in obsolescence in order to increase sales is vital for corporations to generate profit as the rate of technological change increases.  It is the system of production for profit – aka capitalism – which is at the heart of the problem.

So, ascribing the root of the eco-crisis to human existence on the planet as Gaia theorists do, is seriously misguided. The capitalist system of production alienates us from nature, not our desire to consume. As the example from India shows, even with laws in place, the needs of corporate profit will trump ecologically desirable ones.

Breaking away from the lethal cycle of production for profit is the great challenge of our time. We are part of this system and consumers within it. But we have the urgent need, the right and the power - collectively to put an end to it before it ends us.

Corinna Lotz
A World to Win secretary

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