Garbage as our alter ego

“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.)

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Printable version | Apr 16, 2021 1:56:16 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/lead/garbage-as-our-alter-ego/article4059003.ece

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