For a war on waste that can win

April 5, 2018
A waste dump in China.

The recent decision by China to stop accepting low value and contaminated materials for recycling has caused the world price for them to crash. It threatens a crisis for local governments across Australia, which may be forced to send to landfill the stuff that people have sorted and put in their recycling bins.

The positive side to this problem is that it puts a spotlight on this unsustainable practice. Having outsourced our manufacturing plus much of our greenhouse emissions and pollution to China, Western countries have gotten used to dumping their waste there too. Whether the stuff really was recycled and under what conditions was not our problem.

While the first impulse of the waste industry will be to shift operations to other less developed countries desperate for the cash, we have a useful reminder that waste material generated in Australia should be treated here. If we produce anything that we really do not want to have to deal with, then it is obviously something we should not be doing in the first place.

Most waste management hierarchies emphasise the need to reduce, reuse and recycle; in that order of priority. More complex hierarchies throw in extra steps, such as energy recovery and final disposal. The point is that recycling is third best and only necessary when we have failed to deal with something at steps one and two.

It is worth remembering that in nature there is no such thing as waste, everything that was once living sustains the life of something else in a continuous cycle. It is only human society that produces waste. Any production that generates by-products that cannot be absorbed into making some other socially useful good or service or be sustainably reabsorbed by nature, is by definition a failed technique that needs to be phased out.

The problem is that capitalism in its everyday operation turns the waste hierarchy upside down. It does this for two reasons, both derived from the logic of competition for profit between capitalists. First, it continually expands production and consumption, exponentially and without end, as if we live on a planet without natural limits. Secondly, it always seeks to push the true cost of production onto society and the environment.

This catastrophe is not derived from the moral failings of individual capitalists and their lackeys in upper management and government — not that there is any shortage on that score — but rather the internal logic of capitalism. Like a cancer it is impelled to keep on growing even if that means killing its host. Along the way it creates human beings in its own image.

This dynamic, while always present, became especially environmentally destructive after World War II, with the emergence of the modern petro-chemical industry. Ever since, there has been a steady procession of new materials that do not naturally occur on the planet and to which life, humans included, is not adapted — be it plastics, pesticides, cleaning agents and so much more. This has been coupled with an equally insidious emerging industry — modern advertising.

The precautionary principle is also turned on its head. New chemicals are allowed to circulate in the web of life and are only banned when they are proved to cause cancer 20 years after they are released, and even that usually requires long campaigns against multinational companies with deep pockets.

Then there is all the wretched plastic wrapping under which we and the oceans are suffocating. Community campaigns have started to turn the tide on plastic bags, plastic drinking straws and mass balloon releases; but we have barely scratched the surface. It is a struggle to find anything in a supermarket that does not come in or with some kind of single use plastic.

It is not that long ago that all fluids came in refillable bottles, and all wrapping, containers and clothing were made from biodegradable materials such as leather, wood, paper, cotton and wool. That is the limitation of the container deposit legislation that is finally being rolled out across Australia after decades of bitter and dirty resistance by the big beverage producers. While it helps reduce litter, the cost is just being passed onto the consumer and it falls short of what we really need; compulsory refillable containers, just like we used to have.

Across the country waste and resource recovery is a hopeless mismatch of inconsistency and contradictory approaches. Some councils are trying to do the right thing with very little support from state governments, while others are going for the quick and nasty approach and throwing everything into landfill or an incinerator. Here in WA we do not even have glass production, meaning the bottles that people diligently sort into their yellow top bins get “down-cycled” and ground up into road base. 

Policy based on society really taking responsibility for the whole life cycle of every product we make and consume will have to be driven by a new kind of politics that breaks with the logic of capitalism. That is why it was inspiring to see the Victorian Socialists who are standing in Melbourne’s north-east in the upcoming state election propose a new publicly-owned and operated recycling plant, serving as base for new jobs, apprenticeships and manufacturing.

Among the many sectors involved in France’s big nationwide strikes on April 3 were garbage collectors. Their central demand was for the formation of a nationwide publicly-owned waste and resource recovery service.

These two proposals give us a great example of where to direct a war on waste that can win. Help Green Left Weekly spread this message to a wider audience. One way of doing this is by taking out a subscription to the paper for yourself or a friend.

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