Opinion » Lead

Updated: November 5, 2012 19:07 IST

Garbage as our alter ego

Nissim Mannathukkaren
Comment (23)   ·   print   ·   T  T  

Trash is capitalism’s dark underbelly, the product of the very modernisation that helps create ‘clean’ spaces. But it is treated as a ‘third world’ problem

“That's the whole meaning of life ... trying to find a place for your stuff” — George Carlin

The iconic American comedian, and that brilliant dissector of the human condition, George Carlin, had in a 1986 sketch about “The Stuff” shown us how our tendency to acquire more and more stuff — material commodities — generates great anxieties about how and where to store them. Even your house is not a home, but “a place to keep your stuff while you go out and get more stuff.” What Carlin did not tell us, at least in this sketch, is that much of the stuff does not find a place, it ends up as garbage: as waste, trash and refuse.

If there is one thing that is symptomatic of the modern human condition, but hardly recognised as such, it is garbage. Garbage is capitalism’s dark underbelly, its pathological alter ego. That is why we keep disavowing it, refusing to believe it exists.

Vilappilsala standoff

But the more we deny it, it rears its ugly head, as most recently, in Vilappilsala panchayat in Kerala where the standoff between the local people, who are opposed to the reopening of a waste treatment plant, and the State has left 2 lakh tonnes of solid waste lying unprocessed, threatening an environmental disaster.

It is, therefore, remarkable that the current boisterous debate on foreign direct investment in multi-brand retail in India has completely ignored the question of garbage. By focusing only on the supposed virtues of waste reduction in perishable goods (like fruits and vegetables) brought about by the better storage facilities of retail conglomerates, the issue of the latter’s humongous ecological footprint (for example, in terms of sprawl, increase in driving, and the proliferation of non-biodegradable waste) has been bypassed.

According to a report from The Institute for Local Self-Reliance, Washington, D. C., in the 20-year period from 1990, the same period in which Walmart grew to be a behemoth, the average number of miles that a U.S. household travelled for shopping increased by around 1000. And from 2005 to 2010, despite Walmart’s initiation of a reduced waste programme, its reported greenhouse gas emissions shot up by 14 per cent.

Big-box stores don’t just improve efficiency in consumption, they also increase consumption manifold, which ultimately results in phenomenal amounts of trash. The garbage generated by Americans annually reportedly amounts to 220 million tonnes, and 80 per cent of U.S. goods are used only once before being trashed.

In the mythologies of modernisation and development, we sing paeans to skyscrapers and nuclear plants. But there is no accompanying dirge about the costs we have had to pay for them. If there was, then we would have heard of Puente Hills — the largest active landfill/waste dump in the United States, which is a 1,365-acre monstrosity — as much as we have about the World Trade Center or the Empire State Building.

It is ironical, Edward Humes tells us in his book Garbology: Our Dirty Love Affair with Trash, to call Puente Hills a “landfill,” for the garbage mountain has long ceased to fill a depression in the land and rises now an unbelievable 500 feet above the ground, a space capable of holding 15 million elephants. It takes, of course, a gargantuan effort, as Humes describes, to keep the toxic substance that leaks out of the 130-million tonne waste (which includes 3 million tonnes of soiled disposable diapers — another “important” invention of modern life) from poisoning groundwater sources.

Nevertheless, waste is seen, in popular development discourse as a “third world” problem, the ubiquitous mountains of garbage that blight the face of cities and towns in the poorer parts of the world — one of the first tasks that the newly-elected President in Egypt had was cleaning up the garbage mess in Cairo. And the citizens of the third world have internalised this discourse, seeing themselves as part of the “dirty” developing world blissfully unaware of the cost at which a “clean” developed world is maintained. Thus the story of the Somali pirates plundering the high seas has become a part of global lore but not that of Somalia being a (cheap) dumping ground for some of the most toxic garbage, including nuclear and medical waste, from Europe for the last two decades and more. As long as the streets are clean in Frankfurt and Paris, does it matter that children are born in Somalia without limbs?

‘Waste imperialism’

It is in this context of “waste imperialism” that the question of garbage needs to come out of its subterranean existence and occupy centre stage in any discussion on development, including FDI in retail. It is not accidental that dumping grounds, and waste treatment plants are invariably located in places where the most vulnerable and marginalised sections of the population live, whether in the developed or developing worlds. Not surprisingly, garbage has become an important political tool in the present with garbage strikes and struggles around garbage taking place in various cities in the West and elsewhere. The contestation in Vilappilsala has been going on since 2000 when the waste treatment plant opened with serious ecological impact.

We would be living in a mythical world if we think that the problems of waste can be solved only with better rational planning, management or recycling. In the U.S., even after decades of environmental education, only around 24 per cent of the garbage is recycled with nearly 70 per cent of it going into landfills.

Simply throwing trash into the recycling bin hardly does anything to reduce the production of rubbish; on the contrary it might lull us into a false sense of complacency as Heather Rogers, the author of Gone Tomorrow: The Hidden Life of Garbage argues. This is because household waste constitutes a minuscule percentage of the total waste produced, the vast majority of which is constituted by waste from industrial processes. As she shows, the mantra of recycling and green capitalism has been adopted by corporations and big business because it is the least threatening of the options to profit margins — no wonder, the rate of production of goods and, consequently, trash has only increased. More importantly, in this “greenwashing,” the responsibility of cleaning up the environment is displaced from corporations to people themselves in their own individual, personal capacities.

Economy of ‘zero waste’

To be sure, there are rare examples like Germany, which have nearly eliminated landfills, and recycle up to 70 per cent of the waste. But the fact that the Cröbern Central Waste Treatment Plant in Germany, one of the most sophisticated plants in the world (built at a cost of $ 135 million), has been allegedly involved in criminal garbage profiteering by illegally securing solid waste from Italy (to sustain the operations of the plant) shows how tenuous and fragile the economy of “zero waste” is.

Ultimately, the problem of waste cannot be fathomed without recognising the order of capitalism, which is built on the relentless production of commodities and the philosophy of planned obsolescence, in which goods are built to have short shelf life. As Sarah Moore of the University of Arizona has pithily pointed out the contradiction: “Modern citizens have come to expect the places they live, work, play, and go to school to be free of garbage — to be ordered and clean. These expectations can never be fully met, however, precisely because the same processes of modernization that have produced them have also produced a situation in which garbage proliferates.”

The “golden age of capitalism” is thus also the “golden age of garbage.” Just between 1960 and 1980, solid waste in the U.S. increased by four times. This is the exponential growth in garbage the world over, which has rendered the Pacific Ocean awash with plastic particles thus making plastic outnumber zooplankton at a shocking rate of 6:1. And this is the growth that has ironically made garbage and its disposal a multi-billion dollar business, and has made the mafia enter and control it, as in Italy.

Developing countries like India, with almost non-existent waste disposal systems, catastrophically seek to move to the next (superfluous) stage of consumption by imbibing the culture of Walmart. In this scenario, if justice for both human beings and nature has to be ensured, the alter ego of garbage can no longer be hidden under the carpet. It has to be confronted head on.

(Dr. Nissim Mannathukkaren is Associate Professor, International Development Studies, Dalhousie University.)


Trashing the suburbsAugust 31, 2012

Greening the urban jungleJune 27, 2012

Hearths unlit, hearts fume at Vilappilsala February 5, 2012

More In: Lead | Opinion

Very Good Article, an eye-opener for me. Thank you Dr. Nissim Mannathukkaren.

from:  Bidyut Gogoi
Posted on: Nov 5, 2012 at 17:01 IST

This is not an issue that can be dealt with "we must do this" anymore, but needs hard-fisted solutions that affect the pocket. Municipalities must ensure that unsorted garbage is reduced and most garbage is sorted for recycling. Easiest method is to make sure that unsorted trash not collected for free - charge it by the kilo. Incentivize sorted, segregated waste which is ready for recycling - give a discount on the collection for such waste. Penalize reckless throwing of trash and people will police themselves. Also we have to make packaged food companies responsible for the plastic that is thrown away. All of these are tried and tested solutions that are working in other countries. Our cities need to adopt them to get out of this morass.

from:  vishwas
Posted on: Nov 5, 2012 at 15:45 IST

Indeed,the global poor is in service of the global rich in maintaining their backyards clean. Sounds nice, First World, where you don't only export the garbage by keeping yourself cleaner, but also on the same basis do you export aspirations of leading the life YOUR WAY. What a win-win situation.... both wins for you!

A documentary about (the myth) of bio-fuels and the clean fuel lay passed in the European Union. A tale of where Europe gets its clean air from! For folks who are interested watch the documentary "The Bio-Fuel Myth"

from:  Akshay
Posted on: Nov 5, 2012 at 00:10 IST

The article has nicely elaborated on the issue of garbage being neglected.
But, the author should have devoted a part of it to suggesting modern ways to solve the problem.We have made advancements in almost all fields but our methods of garbage disposal are still the same...landfill's or disposal in big water bodies, recycling (in case of plastics,it is more harmful than useful...),reuse! More research needs to be taken up in this field, so that something equivalent to modern terminology of SMART GARBAGE DISPOSAL can come up!

from:  Suman Devi
Posted on: Nov 4, 2012 at 12:17 IST

A very interesting article. Nobody bothers about the hidden ecological costs of development and leaves it for the generations that follow to handle it. With the present garbage situation in cities like Bangalore, I believe it´s high time the administrative machinery took a holistic approach to garbage disposal than treat it on an ad-hoc basis. I think by this time citizens have had enough with garbage and will be wilful partners in solving the garbage problem once and for all.

from:  Vishal Anand
Posted on: Nov 3, 2012 at 15:23 IST

Thank you Dr Nissim for projecting the most stinking problem that all
the leaders try to avoid at all costs.
This should open the eyes of our leaders who are enthusiastic about
their DREAM PROJECT Emerging Kerala. The FIRST agenda for the Emerging
Kerala should be a solution for the Vilappilsala mess that is being
dumped on the hapless people of Vilappilsala under the guise of court
To see children being born without limbs one may not have to go up to
Somali but it will be there very close to you in Vilappilsala.
Thanking Nissim once again for taking up this nasty problem of the poor
the world over,

from:  NB Nair
Posted on: Nov 3, 2012 at 12:56 IST

These messages from my tweets in the past is relevant here.

While BBMP is blamed for the inadequate garbage disposal , isnt it time the citizens thought of life-style changes to ensure less is created ?
With garbage disposal becoming an issue in Kerala , Karnataka .....& spreading, shouldnt 'retail FDI' consequences b debated by Indian society ?

Together ,every Indian & proponents of 'retail FDI' must read the BOOK : The One-straw revolution by Masanobu Fukuoka .

Posted on: Nov 3, 2012 at 11:43 IST

Any article that starts by quoting George Carlin deserves a share!

from:  Narendra Lath
Posted on: Nov 3, 2012 at 11:38 IST

A very well researched article. It is true that waste management and
garbage disposal has been an issue since many years and this issue
will further rise in importance in the future. The combined effort
from corporations, governments and individuals are required to save
the environment but more onus is on corporations as it is mentioned in
the article that most of the waste generates from industry. It is the
duty of us to save the environment as clean environment is the best
gift that we can give our coming generations....

from:  Mohd Danish Kirmani
Posted on: Nov 3, 2012 at 11:23 IST

The issue of waste management raise in the article is quite relevant
in current scenario when the agenda of Climate change, CBD, UNFCC are
on the hot seat. The efficient and planned waste management are the
important aspect of urban master plan mandate under Article 243ZD and
243ZE. In global arena we have not done well and USA global power
itself lags Germany in handling waste management . It is a known fact
that the issue of waste management is harping in our space too.
Recently " Harpoon" is a system developed by British people to remove
space junk using a chaser satellite.
Talking about FDI in retail the author well thought about the issue
of waste management been completely forgotten. We should not forget
that inspite of 2 decade ahead of Bhopal gas tragedy we are unable to
lift the stuck garbage polluting ground profile of the region.
Though some fine work has been done by government by mandating
electronic good dealers having the wholesome responsibility
of its disposal

from:  Rishi
Posted on: Nov 3, 2012 at 11:04 IST

Brilliant Read!! Thought Provoking one.. Thanks Dr. Nissim

from:  Pradeep
Posted on: Nov 3, 2012 at 10:57 IST

The fundamental premise of the article is wrong.

Trash has been around as long as homo sapiens has been
around. The best evidence we get of human habitation are rubbish
heaps discovered by archaeologists and paleontologists. In fact,
the ancestors of dogs are probably wolves who developed a
symbiotic relationship with humans over the availability of
easily scavengeable food in the garbage heaps.

The alternative to not producing trash is to reduce consumption.
Or reduce the number of people. Neither of which is feasible
option. The sane option should be on how to best recycle and
manage garbage and trash which is a fundamental by-product of
human civilization and not just "capitalism". You make it sound
almost as if there was no waste or trash in the USSR...

from:  Alok
Posted on: Nov 3, 2012 at 10:55 IST

Supporters of Walmart entry into India should read this item to know how that company does not really do anything for sustainability and it contributes maximum garbage in all countries it operates including China where its contribution is maximum.

from:  MVJRao
Posted on: Nov 3, 2012 at 10:34 IST

One of the best articles I have read in terms of lit , research and
awareness .. Thanks Sir for this brilliant article

from:  KSVM Koundinya
Posted on: Nov 3, 2012 at 10:19 IST

We all, are using more than what we can. It appears, if people like Mr.
Mukesh Ambani is seen to have his building as a residence, then every
person is aspiring to be like Mr. Ambani, in how much they consume
consumables. I could be wrong, perhaps, but plainly, what does the
packaging we want to get rid of, after the package is opened, and the
amount it appears to be , say about how much we consume, in what comes
in the package?

from:  Aditya Mookerjee
Posted on: Nov 3, 2012 at 10:11 IST

Amazing article! was pretty ignorant about these 'developments' but
the article seems to be biased towards capitalism and the new shift in
the Indian Economy. Capitalism being held as the garbage plant is a
fair point but not recognizing the 'alter ego' is the failure of the
American Democracy. with the advent of internet , it is difficult to
see the sequel of capitalism identical to the harsh and ignorant
American experience. One request: please write a second article
discussing the possible and existing ways of integrating the 'alter
ego' in a productive manner in detail.

from:  Ajit
Posted on: Nov 3, 2012 at 09:31 IST

This is a thought provoking article. My comments: (1) In India we have seen very rapid urbanization during the last two decades or so. It is just not possible to ignore the fact that with more residents in towns, cities and metros garbage problem would be more and more acute. (2) A socialistic society is in ideal form and it may be true that in such a society people may not indulge in wasteful consumption. But it is only on paper that such a thing would happen. Reality may be very bitter. (3) Although it may be true that capitalist society promotes consumerism and it creates more garbage, dealing with human greed (which determines consumption patterns) is a very difficult thing to do. (4) Even if capitalism is mainly guilty for garbage problem today, as argued by the author of this article, no easy solution exists. (5) In India we have simply not recognized seriousness of garbage problem. Earlier we do it better it would be as that would call for steps to deal with it.

from:  Narendra M Apte
Posted on: Nov 3, 2012 at 09:22 IST

The article is excellent. The Govt.of India should at once study the problem seriously with experts and environmentalists and device a national mission to tackle it effectively. How best we can recycle and reuse is the only solution as the trash business is bound to grow leaps and bounds in future. Uncontrolled,it has the power to destroy the nation too.

from:  Vyas K Susarla
Posted on: Nov 3, 2012 at 07:24 IST

Brilliant article......

from:  Srinivasan R
Posted on: Nov 3, 2012 at 06:50 IST

A well researched article. At the end of the day each citizen has to participate in keeping the environment clean. Ownership of one's space is vital. No amount of mechanised garbage clearance can be successful unles each one of us disciplines himself and follows a ritualistic time bound schedule for depositing garbage at an appointed place ready for mass clearance. This discipline has been sadly lacking in our country. Homes are kept clean but the surrounds are neglected as if they do not belong to the individual house owner.

from:  R.Vijaykumar
Posted on: Nov 3, 2012 at 06:08 IST

Our roads and public spaces are littered while our homes are clean. That is because nobody takes ownership of the "commons". Have you ever been to a train station or the rail tracks to see how the people who use trains or the employees who work there treat that property? If you had traveled to the erstwhile East Germany and West Germany, you would be struck by the ecological degradation of the socialist East Germany.

from:  Gopal Vaidya
Posted on: Nov 3, 2012 at 03:03 IST

Very well thought out article. I hope our current politicians have the mental capacity to process information and knowledge and take the appropriate action for the benefit of Indian citizens. At least in my lifetime....

from:  Nikhil
Posted on: Nov 3, 2012 at 02:30 IST

Dr. Nissim, Kudos to you for bringing up a topic of perennial ignorance
which the modern man lives out in denial. Garbage is the catch in the
golden story of capitalism and of all people, India and China ought to
realize that. And soon.

from:  Pavan
Posted on: Nov 3, 2012 at 02:09 IST
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