Annie Brockett, Sarah Mellin and Rosalia Polocano
Waste is all around us: whether we can see it or not, wasting (of resources, materials, energy, etc.) is embedded into many cultural practices. To a large extent, this is because the act of wasting a particular product or item becomes institutionalized in its production or distribution, and is eventually normalized to the point where it becomes part of global systems that perpetuate the same process on a larger scale. But what exactly is being wasted? Why does it matter? And, perhaps most importantly, what can we do to reduce or even stop it? This case study will explore three examples of waste as a way to investigate how we discuss and deal with the issue.
Food waste is an incredibly complex issue. Traditionally, when we think about food waste, it’s because we’re throwing out that extra serving of dessert we decided not to eat or guiltily composting a plate full of vegetables we didn’t really intend to eat in the first place. While it’s true that as individuals we waste a significant amount of food, the majority of this waste actually occurs during the stage of production. At any point in the process, such waste is unsustainable and often connects to the waste of other materials and sources, such as the water, chemicals, or labor that may have gone into producing the food. Many factors play into this, including global economic structures, storage and preservation, and even culturally-determined aesthetic standards for food. Facts regarding the dynamics of this waste are easily accessible, and some are included in this post; for example, according to 2012 statistics, 286 million tons of cereal products (or the equivalent of 763 billion boxes of pasta) were wasted within industrial countries during that year. The transportation of food also contributes to greenhouse gas emissions, and the scale of distribution is more enormous than ever before. Though it can be difficult to measure concretely, these food systems also influence a variety of social issues. Countries in the developing world and the global south are disproportionately impacted by food systems, as their land often serves as both the site of growing or production and of eventual disposal; by extension, their workers are the ones who become most exploited within the food system. Essentially, through Lyons and Bruening’s article and Stuart’s Ted Talk, we hope to provide an insight into the culture of world food waste and a few of its many global impacts.
Quick fact: global plastic production is estimated at 225 metric tons per year (2006).
Microbead plastics have become and important issue of late. They have proved to be extremely environmentally unsustainable and are significantly affecting our water systems and aquatic life. Plastics (including microbeads) account for 10 percent of discarded waste globally and 80 percent of the waste that accumulates on land, shorelines, and the ocean surface/seabed. Since mass production of plastics beginning in the 1950s, the prevalence of plastic in our environment has steadily increased. With technological developments as well as the fragmentation of macroplastics, microbeads have found their way into our global waste system. They are most often found in cosmetic products, toothpastes and clothing. Each time we wash our face or our clothes, we emit microbeads into our water system and add to the large amount of material waste we already produce. Microbeads are especially problematic because they are durable with quite a long lifespan (hundreds of thousands of years) and we do not currently manage/dispose of them correctly. Even further, they are often obstructed from sunlight and UV radiation furthering their longevity. We also do not know their longterm affect on living organisms – humans included. Additionally, harmful chemicals latch on to microbeads once they enter our water system making them even more toxic and dangerous.
On a global scale, plastics (microbeads especially) are not only mass produced but also overproduced. In turn, the act of using and then wasting things like cosmetic products that contain them or constantly washing clothes that contain them becomes institutionalized (in production and distribution). As this process is normalized, it is then perpetuated by the global system it has become a part of. To keep up with the demand and normalized prevalence of plastics, the global industrial production system perpetuates this environmental issue.
Both Shiva and Frey make it a point that the problem that we have with e-waste is two-fold: not only are “core” countries (or the more powerful countries) taking advantage of the “periphery” countries, but they are also subjecting them to processes that are hazardous to human health. The people in these countries taking in e-waste need to make money to support their families, and so they feel like working in these plants is their only option. Even though, as Frey points out, may countries have outlawed e-waste trade/importation, it still occurs because the economy is being prioritized. At the expense of their workers’ health, the companies and the nation benefit from this business. The growth in the worlds technological sector is astounding, and the advancements that are constantly being made require us to “throw away” our old devices. It is estimated that 30 to 50 million tons of e-waste is generated around the world each year (Frey). Of the 80% that is exported by the US, 90% of it goes to China. For the core countries, it is better to export the waste because the liability and health costs are so much lower in the periphery countries. The lives of the workers in those periphery countries are bring devalued, and further subjected to the continuous cycle of poverty and death.
Ch. 68 from our book by Vandana Shiva “Ecological Balance in an Era of Globalization”
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