Where does my waste go?

plastic container on beach
Sanghamitra C. Mukherjee

29th April 2021


Trash has always been a major problem in developing countries. Strangely enough, for residents of the developing world, litter can become such an accepted fact of life, that apart from perfecting the muscle memory involved in sidestepping any litter that bars someone’s progress to their destination, little thought goes into where it came from, let alone coming up with a solution.



I have long been acquainted with litter whilst growing up in India. Our school required every student to stay behind after school to clean their classrooms before leaving the premises, and organized random litter picking days when students’ cleaning efforts left the campus spotless. And yet, beyond the school boundaries was a different world. In the neighborhood was one of the city’s biggest slums that was eyed with suspicion and where children from more ‘respectable’ families were never allowed in. A sense of ‘othering’ permeated many levels of society, and when it came to litter, there was a belief that one’s trash was another’s problem.



People in developing countries typically consume far fewer products and with less packaging than consumers in more industrialized countries do, and yet waste is so much more visible in these countries. Part of this problem may be attributed to their inadequate waste management system and policies, improper trash collection systems, and insufficient recycling facilities (SDG 9: Industry, Innovation and Infrastructure). Also, although per capita waste generation is very low, the facilities that exist are frequently overwhelmed due to the sheer population of these countries. Untreated waste ends up cluttering land and waterways, and the rapid urbanization process means that big cities are the worst affected (SDG 11: Sustainable Cities and Communities). Premature deaths are high from fumes and toxins, and regulation to prevent these is poor (SDG 3: Good Health and Well-being, SDG 6: Clean Water and Sanitation).


“It is accepted that pollution is inextricable from economic growth, and there will be winners and losers in this game. A misplaced notion of economic progress is traded for a massive public health and environmental concern.” (SDG 8: Decent Work and Economic Growth)

Indeed, the many dumps strewn around urban areas provideeconomic opportunitiesfor the poor, mostly women, who scavenge through no doubt many dangerous items laboring for countless hours to find something of value that could then be exchanged for money or food with traders who inevitably drive a hard bargain (SDG 5: Gender Equality,SDG 2: Zero Hunger). Children often drop out of school to help their families with this income generating opportunity (SDG 4: Quality Education,SDG 1: No Poverty). With few other economic opportunities, the poor remain poor and caught up in such vicious cycles that barely sustain them.



I moved to the UK about a decade ago, and ironically, I first began thinking more deeply about litter only a few years afterwards when I was volunteering with a charity as a retail assistant for a period. I wondered where the second-hand clothes that were not sold eventually landed. What I learnt shocked me at the time. These items of clothing wereshipped to a developing countryin Asia or Africa, and afterwards ended up intheirlandfills and incineration units if they failed to sell in countries that werealreadystruggling with their own waste management problems (SDG 10: Reduced Inequalities).



More recently, I learnt the astounding fact that many industrialized countries have been exporting their plastic waste to poor countries since the 1970s, seemingly ignorant of the fact that much of this waste is either contaminated or unsuitable for recycling, ending up therefore as an additional environmental and economic burden in countries that received these exports, with the majority of these countries’ inhabitants oblivious to where it originated but suffering from its health and wellbeing consequences, and yet looking for economic opportunities amidst it all, the latter often being put forward as a justification for perpetuating such injustices into the future (SDG 10: Reduced Inequalities). Yet another instance of what has been dubbed“waste imperialism”.



Litter is therefore inherently anenvironmental justice issuefor three main reasons (SDG 10: Reduced Inequalities). Firstly, waste, especially plastics, is regularly dumped into countries that are not prepared to manage it. Secondly, when waste is not managed effectively, it typically ends up in more vulnerable communities even within the boundaries of the most industrialized nations. Finally, on the one hand, corporations choose to keep profiting from single-use plastics and syntheticsknowingthat no number of recycling facilities can ever tackle the sheer amount of waste the world’s population generates as a result. On the other hand, people living around and handling waste are regularly exposed to toxic fumes when plastic is burnt, forced to consume crops that have been poisoned by toxic wastewater, and compelled to make an uncertain living sifting through the likes of broken glass earning an inconsequential fraction of what the CEOs of such corporations make.



The current coronavirus pandemic has further ushered in anew single-use plastic pollution crisisas masks and other personal protective equipment (PPE) are being used and disposed of at unanticipated volumes. Waste management systems are already frail and clueless about the fate of this new toxic waste. Our oceans, coastal and marine life are already bearing the brunt of this (SDG 14: Life Below Water,SDG 15: Life on Land). The full impact of sinking even deeper into the already precarious plastic waste problem is yet unknown.



When it comes to climate change, there is a key question that inhibits people from taking climate action — is there enough evidence yet that we must act (SDG 13: Climate Action)? Granted, summers are warmer but not yet unbearably so in the West, and stories of occasional typhoons and droughts reach us from distant lands, their effect seemingly muted by the time and effort taken to cover the distance. Litter is undoubtedly a more visible issue, a fact of life in any developing country and familiar to Western tourists who have visited some of the world’s most famous (and dirtiest) beaches, a few in their own countries making the list in recent years. Even on the coasts of Dublin, eco warriors regularly collect tons of plastic waste washed up on its shores. It is thus less likely to be confusing as to why we must act now to stop it getting any worse.


“In a planet connected by one ocean and with strong ocean currents, waste generated in one part of the world could end up on the shores of remote lands thousands of miles away due to poor management and pollute and jeopardize nations that could in fact have the best policies surrounding their own plastic use and disposal.”

Solutions exist, and as with tackling the pandemic, these must be enacted cooperatively between governments and corporations to have any major impact (SDG 17: Partnerships for the Goals). key step in the right direction would be for industrialized nations to invest heavily in their own recycling capabilities and introduce airtight bans on waste exports as for instance in the EU where less than a third of its plastic waste was recycled and 1.5 million tons exported in 2019. In addition, plastic waste that cannot be recycled can be turned into alternative fuel(SDG 12: Responsible Consumption and Production, SDG 7: Affordable and Clean Energy).



Several governments have also recently implemented a single-use plastic ban in some form, including plastic bag bans in Bangladesh since 2002, Kenya since 2017, Tanzania since 2019, and New Zealand since 2019, and a planned ban on single-use plastic straws, cutlery and other disposable items in the EU in 2021, a move that has been significantly delayed, most notably in the developed world. In contrast, plastic bag levies and gradual phase-out programs have been more popular in the industrialized West. However, for a measurable impact on pollution, a ban or a levy is not enough. Restrictions on retail distribution must be paired with moving to a circular economy framework that regulates throughout the lifecycle of plastic bags restricting manufacturing, production, and imports as well (SDG 12: Responsible Consumption and Production).



A crucial piece of the puzzle remains fuzzy — to figure out how to incline human behaviour towards reducing consumption where restrictions are not in effect. Fast fashion, with its artificially low prices and impressive variety, has for instance made it incredibly easy and tempting for consumers in the West to consume beyond their needs, whilst being next in line to the oil industry as the leading contributor to global pollution. Such exploitation must end. We need systems where products are priced at levels that compensate producers fairly and in turn provide the right price signals to consumers making purchasing decisions. We also need to embrace and scale up innovative solutions that promote reuse and longevity without compromising convenience or quality and thereby provide a myriad of alternatives to single-use plastic and other harmful synthetic materials. Some recent initiatives include reusing plastic bottles to make PPE, using PPE waste to make beds, converting vegetable matter to create compostable shopping bags, and using origami designs to extend the life and use of traditional clothing. However, to create sustainable change, we also need more accountability. We need people at all levels who are fully aware of the issues and take responsibility for their actions (SDG 16: Peace, Justice and Strong Institutions). We need to create cultural shifts in societies everywhere where one person’s waste is not considered another person’s problem. We need more people asking, “Where does my waste go?” and feel a sense of discomfort at the answer.






Featured photo by Beth Jnr on Unsplash



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