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Consume, throw and then blame
By Sudhirendar Sharma

As rapidly growing mountains of trash raise a stink across the globe, it's time to discard the 'use and throw' culture which has no concern for environment and humanity.

Garbage dumps create slums around them and vice versa

Adam's wasting the mythical apple unleashed a culture of consumption and waste for the human civilizations. This culture has relentlessly amplified and waste has grown in quantities and categories ever since. Mountains of rubbish have come to symbolize a democratic expression of growth, embedded within them a consumptive pattern that reflects class, power and dignity. An average American's 700 kg waste a year and a European's 500 kg is no coincidence, providing substrate for millions of poor to make a living from the waste heaps of the 'effluent' class.

Our neighborhood waste dumps may impinge our senses and may take away our natural paradises but a look at the mass of trash spread before us makes it clear that money has been made. The huge tertiary sector devoted to getting rid of things is central to the maintenance of capitalism. At its core lies the linear model of resource use, of manufactured and packaged products, that has left society rushing headlong into the destructive frenzy of consumption. With 80 million new citizens joining the planet each year, search for a new Earth with a new Adam may seem orderly!

With waste bins overflowing, the terrible pressure of accumulation means that waste itself has become a historical force that calls for strengthening the system (of disposal) without addressing the symptom (of consumption). This notion is somewhat problematic as the policy and economic instruments keep 'the reduction of waste' central to crafting strategies without asking the more difficult questions about whether or not recycling makes much sense in either economic or thermodynamic terms. Plastic recycling with its dreadful emissions is a case-in-point.

With waste bins overflowing, the terrible pressure of accumulation means that waste itself has become a historical force that calls for strengthening the system (of disposal) without addressing the symptom (of consumption).

Recycling does have a place under the sun but the problems waste poses may be more than economic or environmental. Else, the huge tertiary sector that converts garbage into money would not be counter-positioned to ecological movements that stress on human values and 'the natural'. Jonathan Chapman of the University of Brighton laments 'adulterous consumption' and the associated inevitability of recycling, because there is simply no relationship at all between the product and the purchaser. This disconnect nurtures a culture that is conducive to capitalism.

Waste is a key category for understanding cultural value. In more conservative societies, the idea of waste rarely exists because the metabolism of the human species aligns with the metabolism of natural world. Consider the cotton dhoti that rural Indian women drape around themselves: its multi-stage metabolism would pass through distinct household usages, from being man's shirt to a window curtain, before being stretched to the last thread for mopping the floor. The emotional relationship with the product ensured that its re-use and re-cycling remained largely private.

Out of sight but not out of mind

Contrast it with the modern culture that first disposes of the 'bad stuff' and then engages in a constant struggle to redeem it. Paradoxically, what gets disposed is essentially through 'private' action but what accumulates as a result warrants 'public' attention. Seeing half the contents of your garbage bin spread over the street can be irritating and may trigger strong feelings of disgust and exposure. Our intimate life is often on public display, yet any attempt at relating to it makes one shudder with the horror of contamination.

Once garbage is out of house, individual responsibility is over

Similarly, the clogging of storm water system, designed to manage runoff from streets, with raw sewage from overflowing drains during rains blur the distinction between private and public. When the rain clears and everything is meant to smell fresh, but a strong stench emanates from the gutters, almost as if human excrement is in the air. Obviously, this is grossly unpleasant. But individuals who contribute to it neither feel personally exposed nor implicated. On the contrary, it is called a failure of public infrastructure.

It is clear from these two urban encounters that waste that is most threatening to the self has to be rendered out of sight and mind as quickly as possible. Waste is a function of our pre-public individuality that loses its identity once it enters the public arena, triggering public concern towards its bureaucratic (mis)management. Though the status of waste in public and private spheres seems incommensurable; the human relationship to waste is markedly distinct. A blocked toilet becomes the ultimate domestic nightmare but the overflowing drain remains nobody's concern.

In making human waste management a state matter through the formation of regulations and institutions to administer it, says Gay Hawkins author of 'Culture of Waste', the realm of privacy and personal habit gets substantially reordered. And only by understanding how waste has been deployed to produce a modern public-private distinction is it possible to assess the fundamental paradox of waste in public. A paradox that goes something like this: horror at the very idea of open defecation and resigned acceptance of overflowing sewage drains.

When private becomes public

How humans relate to waste is critical because the magnitude of the problem is extraordinary. If Americans had recycled the 32 billion cans of fizzy drinks they threw away in 2002, they would have saved 435,000 tonnes of aluminium - enough to rebuild the world's entire commercial fleet more than 1.5 times. But that was not to be, as capitalist market does not encourage an iota of concern in individuals towards use-and-throw culture. Young consumers might relate to their favourite pair of jeans but the aluminium cans don't generate any emotional connect.

A filled can is prized, but an empty can is waste

Aluminium cans and human excreta represent two significant but somewhat unrelated aspects of the growing waste debate which reflect that our subjectivity and self is at stake when we deal with waste at home. However, when the inefficient waste management system is criticized, the same consumers take on activist citizen role to hold the state accountable for its inactions. In the long journey from the bathroom to the sewer or from the kitchen to the garbage dump, not only does waste get transformed but so does our relationship with it.

That there's public waste which is the responsibility of government was established during the year of 'the Great Stink' in London in 1858. The restoration of the Thames from the scourge of public waste was necessitated because peoples' representatives were finding it hard to stand the stench from untreated sewage in the river flowing next door to the Parliament. The subsequent creation of 1,240 miles of sewage tunnels laid the foundation of the state's defining role in managing and disposing public waste.

In the long journey from the bathroom to the sewer or from the kitchen to the garbage dump, not only does waste get transformed but so does our relationship with it.

The role of state hasn't changed ever since, though its inability to handle waste has been glaring. Some 2.5 billion people across the world not only lack access to basic sanitation but remain vulnerable to its consequences too. Every conceivable water body, be it a lake or a river, has been converted into a public laundry, bathroom and toilet. Each open space has inadvertently been littered with plastic bags, bottles and the like. With the state being presumed to be the savior, little thought is given to the ethical and environmental implications of our waste habits.

The legitimate dependence on state as a service provider leads to a set of intriguing questions. Is it not a reality of our times that when waste happens the demand for it to be rendered invisible generally means its disposal outside both public and private spheres, distant landfills and rivers, for example? Does it not restrict our sense of obligation to the rivers where our waste ends up? Does efficient techniques of waste elimination not a measure of cleanliness at the cost of nature and environmental stability?

Garbage being dumped at a Mumbai beach

Curiously, there hasn't been any imagination in the way waste has been handled since late 19th century. In a broader sense, waste management has remained a function of sound infrastructure investment based on effective public policy. However, saddled with inefficiency and corruption the municipalities have run out of resources to manage the growing rubbish mountains. Any number of innovative solutions on waste reduction, including the boards made of human excreta, have yet to prove their aesthetic appeal and economic viability despite the promise they hold.

Waste corrupts the system

Waste generation has clearly outpaced its management, compounded by the incredible challenge of mobilizing resources for this resource-crunched sector. Successful civil society initiatives like the Sulabh's pay-and-use toilets showcase that community can indeed pay, providing clues on innovative financing to the beleaguered municipalities. Such self-help models do chide the state for its failure to meet peoples' expectation but absolve the state of its primary role of a service provider as well. The net result is the convenience of creating business opportunities for waste management by partnering with the commercial sector. It is somewhat ironic that the capitalist culture of consumption returns to the capitalist route for managing waste.

No wonder, big companies and large multi-national corporations jump into the fray to partner the state in helping reduce the public waste. For the urban consumer it offers a win-win situation as the public-private partnership route to corporate investment promises an early disposal of the overflowing neighborhood garbage bin. But as the state rechristens its role as a regulatory authority, the ethical and environmental consideration of waste disposal gets undermined as profit-making moves centre-stage in the new relationship.

Adequately reflected in modern lifestyle, the power of consumption has reduced nature as a source of entertainment and willful manipulation.

What seems genuinely encouraging may not promote environmental values on account of the new institutional arrangement of waste management being pivoted around profit. The breadth of the reform relies on financial orthodoxy, discounting the fact that such a system remains easily corruptible. Simply put, the modus operandi of efficient waste disposal hinges on the choice of technology that need not necessarily adhere to the ethics of safe disposal. Most people don't get a sense of the ferment of ideas going on out there till they actually feel the 'heat'.

And, heat is indeed generated as solid waste is burnt under controlled conditions in the incinerators, a technology that has been favoured despite its poor environmental records. It replaces the more cumbersome composting technique. Without doubt, incinerator render the waste invisible as also reduce its volume faster than the labor-intensive method of composting that is visibly offensive and malodorous. That it generates toxic organic fumes and dreadful heavy metals like mercury remains conspicuously absent from any public discourse.

Waste incinerators are more of a problem than solution

Sukhdev Vihar residents in South Delhi recently demonstrated their ire against the controversial citing of an incinerator in proximity to their habitation for reasons enumerated above. This hasn't been the first such instance of public outrage against a technology that is designed for effective and speedy waste elimination but one that underscores the need to understand how addressing waste disposal in public re-emerges as a problem that leads to implication of the 'solution' itself. The regulatory body often feigns ignorance to such intricacies.

Search for benign technology catches attention but the emerging power dynamics of waste management legitimizes the use of technology by corrupting the system. Expectedly, the regulatory body plays to the divided house thereby creating perfect conditions for converting an environmental concern into a political controversy. Without doubt, the next logical step takes the matter to the court of law. As waste transits from a subtle 'cultural context' into complex 'legal arena', it gains an altogether distinct currency with changed relationship matrix.

As public waste is assigned a new currency, it attains the level of a tradeable commodity. Pierre Bélanger, a landscape architect, points to the North American Free Trade Agreement - that allows a plot of farmland in Michigan to become, literally, a mountain of Canadian trash. In another bizarre case, the Dutch had made an abortive attempt to offload their overflowing dung heaps on the Gujarat shore in the early 1990's. Be it obnoxious waste or obsolete technology, developing countries have been the favoured dumping ground for the developed West.

The ship breaking industry at Alang on the Gujarat coast has grievously violated environmental laws of the land, by manipulating the regulatory and legal systems, but has continued to grow even though the world has been witness to an unprecedented economic recession. Someone's waste generates employment for others across several seas, justifying its dumping. Waste - be it public or industrial - has attained the level of a global industry. The waste industry is deeply connected to the free market economy's ongoing need to intensify and expand consumption. Indeed, an economy that relies on constant growth requires consistent wasting.

Love it or hate it, waste is a testament of culture. Yet, it is tough to reconcile how waste has moved from being a private act to a more pronounced corporate product with limitless possibilities of creating an industrial enterprise around it. If market globalization is anything to go by, we are a society that has an insatiable desire to consume and give a damn to the waste we generate in the process. The capitalist economy is supportive: many companies in the US have withdrawn refillable from the market shelves. The trend has caught on!

The waste industry is deeply connected to the free market economy's ongoing need to intensify and expand consumption. Indeed, an economy that relies on constant growth requires consistent wasting.

Unless there is a cultural renaissance, the wasteful society will grow in numbers followed by a committed section outside of it playing the activist citizen role to protect the stability of the system. Prophetic though it may sound, technology of waste elimination and minimization will be pronounced in a capital-dominated world of waste management. However, it could easily be doubted if the sum of all waste management techniques will erase the garbage footprints of modern society - economic recession and climate change notwithstanding.

Aesthetics in garbage footprints

Future anthropologists, paleontologists, and archeologists would be jobless if the present human race were not to leave its garbage footprints. They have written history by scraping feces and bones from the garbage pits of primitive people and from the detritus have pieced together the diet, culture, commerce, and possibly the eventual downfall of a people. The United States excretes more garbage, in more durable forms, than any society before it. History may remember them as much as the earth remembers their garbage today.

In a 2006 Canadian compilation Trash, artists have helped ease the notion of waste as a problem. They have instead looked at the infinite beauty in castoff items, either as testaments of the ingenuity of human life or as remnants of our once-great civilization. If you're one who instinctively opposes the continued trashing of our world, this occasional ambivalence about garbage - is it ugly or is it strangely beautiful and human - can be unsettling. Yet, it offers us imaginative new insights on looking at the dispossessed, the lost and the left behind.

It should be difficult for the environmentalist, or the conscientious consumer, to see beauty in trash - and yet some of space-age packaging clearly reflects smart industrial design worthy of appreciation. Paradoxically, both the appealing futuristic packing along with the product contained therein will soon be garbage themselves. It may sound polemic but the sense of appreciation helps to emotionally reconnect with the product that has long been presumed to be part of the unending waste stream.

Within limits evoking sympathy for rubbish may be critical, argues Hawkins, because it may help draw distinction between useful and useless, humble object and the recalcitrant. Isn't vintage stuff, be it broken chairs or eviscerated recliners, aesthetically placed in public parks and historical monuments? Not all stuff can be treated at par though, yet there exists an opportunity to appreciate the uniqueness in a waste product and rebuild emotional connection with it. Traditional societies have amply demonstrated that such connection works in reducing waste.

Sociologists have consistently argued that a throwaway culture has a serious disregard for humanity. Adequately reflected in modern lifestyle, the power of consumption has reduced nature as a source of entertainment and willful manipulation. Waste generation and disposal is an indicator of gross neglect of environment and serious disregard for humanity.

Waste is more than the used up, the broken, the outgrown and the obsolete. Evoking relationship between the purchaser and the purchase can refurbish the emotional bonding and revive a culture that has a regard for humanity as well as nature. The corporate logic of manipulating public to profit from trash ought to be challenged to create a society that distances itself from the dominant use-and-throw culture.

The views expressed above are personal and do not necessarily reflect the views of d-sector editorial team.

Sudhirendar Sharma  |  sudhirendarsharma@gmail.com

Dr Sudhirendar Sharma is an environmentalist and development analyst based in New Delhi. Formerly with the World Bank, Dr Sharma is an expert on water, a keen observer on climate change dynamics, and a critic of the contemporary development processes.

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