TRACKING THE FUTURE OF CITIES
By: Pierre Herman
Waste not, want not, so it goes. That’s the theory anyway. We’ve had the “reduce, reuse, recycle” motto pounded into our brains quasi-religiously. We meticulously sort our garbage for the weekly curb pick-up. And the very word, waste – synonymous with loss and inefficiency, exhaustion and devastation – is indeed of glum etymology. So why then, despite our seemingly best efforts, do we still produce such massive amounts of it?
The term “waste basket” was only first recorded in 1850. Curiously, that’s the same year Singer came out with its revolutionary pedal-powered sewing machine. It was soon after that our modern consumer culture took shape and quickly propelled us into the throw-away society we have today, of fast-food and fast-fashion, planned-obsolescence and single-use disposable razors. Each of us in Europe is now producing an average of half a tonne of household waste per year, or 16 tonnes per capita if all sources of waste are included, adding up to a staggering 2.5 billion tonnes in 2010.
This is bad news of course, at least officially. Holding dear to our tired motto, the European Commission claims that reducing the amount of waste generated, ahead of recycling or reusing, is a priority for waste policy on the continent. But just how realistic is it to pretend we can reduce waste? Waste production is highly correlated to GDP according to a study conducted at Paris-Dauphine University. The more we earn, the more industry produces, the more we buy and the more packaging and other waste we produce (And even if we don’t earn, easy credit will take care of that). According to the EU household waste continues to increase year by year, so despite all the talk of prioritizing waste reduction, there’s little to show it’s having an impact.
And there’s probably a good reason for that: Waste is worth much more than its nasty reputation would have us think. According to a report commissioned by Environmental services company Veolia, the global waste management industry, which includes collecting, sorting, and recycling, is worth an estimated $410 billion annually. Investment bank Merrill-Lynch is predicting garbage to be “the next big investment boom”, especially in emerging markets, claiming the industry could be worth $2 trillion globally by 2020. Cities in Europe and North America aren’t blind to the opportunities either, with most selling their recyclable rubbish at a handsome profit.
Aside from being slightly peeved that the waste I “bought” is being sold at a profit by someone else, not to mention that I help keep their costs down by pre-sorting it for them, I wonder whether waste is truly the problem we think it is. Instead of waste management and recycling being the solution to waste, is it not waste that supplies raw materials for a lucrative and growing waste management industry? No problem according to the EU, who say “turning waste into a resource is one key to a circular economy.”
But if waste is the raw material for a booming industry backed by big players in capital markets and contradictory EU policy that promotes waste reduction at the same time as it promotes economic growth, I doubt very much the amount of waste we produce as a society is going to drop any time soon. Quite the contrary, we are fuelling what could be labelled a waste-economy.
Furthermore, it begs the question of what other so called environmental problems are actually feeding the needs of capital and industry to the detriment of global environmental health. Climate change, beyond any doubts about the anthropogenic nature of it (which I am not doubting), is indeed another point of contention. Like waste, but on an even more devastating in scale, climate change is feeding an industry of wind turbines, flood defence systems, and carbon sequestration technology (the latter of still dubious reliability). What I fear is that just as the waste management industry needs waste, and like the war economy needs war or the war on terror needs terror, the green, low-carbon economy needs climate change. In other words, if the market is left to solve our problems for us, then our problems (including death and destruction that environmental problems entail) become the currency for the market’s bottom line.
With respect to urban centres, the much cherished idea of a “sustainable city” is completely thrown onto its head if we can’t get the amount of rubbish we produce under control. Market-based solutions are wonderful at turning problems into sources of profits, but the market has yet to prove it can do so without plundering the planet of natural resources, of the trees, fossil fuels, minerals and water that provide the raw materials for what you might call the waste-manufacturing of our throw-away society. And it has yet to prove it can solve problems that aren’t in the least bit profitable, like the giant patches of trash covering Texas-sized swaths of most of the world’s oceans, to mention but one. Waste, in other words, has yet to prove itself a necessary evil.
If we want to reduce waste, let’s do it. Human ingenuity can. Take this German supermarket that’s completely eliminated packaging waste as a great example. Policy makers, however, need to come clean about what is being done, if anything at all. Because if the market is being left to solve our environmental problems, while they (policy makers) simultaneously pull wool over our eyes by telling us that waste is well, waste, then we genuinely have much to think about!