Why do we hide from our waste?

14 June 2024
Liam Kruger
A boy walks on piles of plastic waste on the banks of the Yamuna river in New Delhi, India PHOTO: Biplov Bhuyan/Hindustan Times/Getty Images

Review of Wasteland: The Dirty Truth About What We Throw Away, Where It Goes, and Why It Matters by Oliver Franklin-Wallis, Simon & Schuster UK, 2023.

Journalist Oliver Franklin-Wallis’ Wasteland provides a horrifying insight into the realities of our global waste system. Through the book, Franklin-Wallis recounts his journey across the world and interactions with the people, processes and facilities responsible for the final stages of the capitalist production cycle. From recycling plants in the UK to toxic e-waste in Ghana, each chapter explores a fresh revulsion with the way global capitalism handles waste disposal.

Franklin-Wallis’ aim is to open readers’ eyes to what is too often left unseen. He starts with the Ghazipur landfill, a mountain of 14 million tonnes of garbage that “looms over” India’s capital New Delhi “as if someone has lifted a chunk of the Himalayas”. The scale is often incomprehensible, but Franklin-Wallis’ descriptions of the sights, sounds and unbearable smells help to convey the spectacle far better than any picture could.

Franklin-Wallis emphasises the negative impacts of capitalism’s “wastelands” on both human beings and the environment. He doesn’t describe the Ghazipur landfill as if it were a purely aesthetic phenomenon. The reader is given a sociological background to the lower caste workers picking through the mountain of trash, and a harrowing description of a cloud of scavenger birds that have found their place amid the landfill’s ecosystem of rotting foodstuffs. Franklin-Wallis conveys, too, the joy some young children find with a half-empty bottle of bubble-making solution they salvaged.

While reeling from the immense scale of a garbage pit in the UK so deep that his guide has never seen the bottom, Franklin-Wallis poses the question: “Do we hide our waste because we are disgusted, or ashamed?” The rest of the book makes clear, though, that it’s neither. The mass of people are disconnected from the “wastelands” of the production cycle the better to facilitate the profit-making of companies whose trash ends up there.

The primary consequence of waste is environmental degradation. The various dump sites discussed in Wasteland each produce “plumes of carbon dioxide”, and a single landfill in Pakistan was found to be emitting 126 tonnes of methane per hour. Plastics are particularly odious due to their inability to be fully broken down, with the upper ocean estimated to contain 24.4 trillion microplastic particles.

The harmful environmental effects of waste are often not well understood, as there are an incredible number of different pollutants. One class of pollutants is known as persistent organic pollutants (POPs). POPs are not very soluble in water but very soluble in fats. This has resulted in them accumulating in whale blubber to the point that certain whale carcasses “are so contaminated they are classified as toxic waste”.

Keeping food waste hidden from view is also important to maintain the myth of global capitalism being an efficient economic system. According to the World Wildlife Fund, 15.3 percent of all food produced is wasted before it even makes it to stores. Overall, according to the United Nations World Food Programme, a third of all food produced is wasted—weighing 931 million tonnes and worth US$1 trillion a year. This waste is both an indictment of the system’s inefficiency, as there are still hundreds of millions of people who are malnourished, and devastating for the environment. Food waste produces up to 10 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions.

Recycling is a regularly proposed solution to the world’s waste problem that Franklin-Wallis explores. He is optimistic about this (perhaps overly), while acknowledging there are serious limitations. Globally, less than 20 percent of the more than 2 billion tonnes of household waste produced annually is recycled. And recycling is a drain on other resources too. For example, producing one kilogram of recycled paper requires 170 litres of water. Additionally, a proportion of waste can’t be recycled at all or only for a limited number of times. Many plastics in particular degrade over successive recycles and become toxic.

Franklin-Wallis talks to the commercial director for a plastics company who, commenting on the recent corporate strategy of encouraging customers to return used plastic bags, says it’s “absolute bollocks isn’t it? It’s greenwashing ... most of it has gone to landfill or waste-to-energy”. The boss of a T-shirt recycling company tells him that if a truly “circular economy” where all products used were recycled was possible, it would involve someone buying clothes, wearing them once, and returning them to the producer without ever washing them. It would be, he says, “less of a closed system of ethical consumption than capitalism as hamster wheel, spinning ever faster”.

Franklin-Wallis discusses how profit-making is an essential component of recycling, waste management and sanitation systems under capitalism. Throughout the world, things happen only when some company can turn a profit. Much of the clothing that is sent for recycling in the West, for example, actually ends up being shipped to countries in the developing world, where a large portion of it is simply dumped, because it’s more profitable to do that than to recycle them. Rivers are polluted and people’s sources of water contaminated because companies won’t accept the cut to their profits that would result from disposing of waste safely elsewhere.

Franklin-Wallis describes how tanneries in India illegally dump chromium waste on roads, polluting the groundwater to 4,000 times the safe drinking limit designated by the World Health Organization. These kinds of breaches are unavoidable in a system in which the logics of profit-seeking and competition dominate. Often, too, the environmental regulations under which companies operate have been designed by governments in consultation with the biggest polluters to be both loose enough not to be a barrier to profit-making and intentionally confusing for consumers.

Inequalities and class differences in how people relate to waste and production are also intrinsic to capitalism. In Wasteland Franklin-Wallis often recounts tours of waste facilities led by, and discussions of waste and recycling with, the bosses and managers of companies. Where he relates to the workers, it is typically as an observer rather than as a direct interlocutor. While this somewhat one-sided class perspective does colour the book, Franklin-Wallis is never uncritical of what the bosses tell him and is incredibly sympathetic to the way workers and the poor are affected by the “wastelands” he discusses.

When it comes to sanitation, in particular, Franklin-Wallis centres the impacts on the working class. In a way reminiscent of Friedrich Engels’ The Condition of the Working Class in England, he shows how the advance of industry in the early days of capitalism resulted in an incredible depreciation of the standard of living for working-class people. He describes how the Thames river in London “was unimaginably polluted”, but that “despite the putrid state of the river, many of the city’s poorest inhabitants were still sourcing their drinking water from communal street pumps”. It was only, Franklin-Wallis says, after the smell started to affect the wealthy and the health of their labour supply that the ruling class began seriously to consider improvements to sanitation.

The working class and poor suffering from waste and sanitation-related illnesses is not a mere historical fact, but a persistent truth of modern capitalism. Franklin-Wallis points out that 1.7 billion people still do not have access to adequate sanitation. One in ten people globally consume unsafe drinking water, which is largely responsible for 1,200 children under five dying every day from diarrhoea.

As well as examining its health and environmental impacts, Franklin-Wallis emphasises how waste is dehumanising. He relates feeling sick just briefly walking around a waste dump full of animal carcasses. But, as his book makes clear, many people around the world are forced to live permanently in such conditions. On this point, Franklin-Wallis’s analysis could have benefited from reference to the Marxist concept of alienation, or the idea that capitalist and class societies generally remove people from what makes them human, and often force them to live in truly inhuman conditions.

Crucially, alienation explains how working-class people have no agency in, or real connection to, the production process. Whereas historically people laboured to meet definite needs and contribute to society, under capitalism the individual existence and personal goals of workers have no bearing on productive life at all, and the labour people perform is compelled and directed towards making profit. Franklin-Wallis’ question about why we hide from our waste is fundamentally misdirected. We, as workers, don’t hide from anything. Our fundamentally alienated existence means that what is, and isn’t, hidden from us is something that others—namely, the capitalist ruling class—decide for us.

The disconnection of the mass of workers from production, and the waste that it generates, is something that the capitalist class facilitates and supports. The “throwaway” culture of contemporary capitalism, in which we’re encouraged to “buy, buy, buy” and think little or nothing of the waste we’re helping generate in the process, provides immense benefits to capitalists whose profits depend on selling things in ever greater quantities. Waste is hidden from us because it’s good for business.

Some of the proposals Franklin-Wallis offers at the conclusion of the book, such as rationalising packaging, are useful. However, a problem as great as waste—itself a product of the internal logic of capitalism—cannot be solved by anything short of a total restructuring of production and class relations with it. This is why Franklin-Wallis’ ultimate conclusion—that we should simply “buy less stuff”—falls so flat after much of the rest of the book lands so forcefully.

Franklin-Wallis ends Wasteland by pondering a water bottle: “Who made this thing? How many lives has it touched, whose hands, whose lips?” Waste is a product of people, with their labour embodied in its creation. However, it won’t be until we have abolished capitalism that production, and waste, can be rationally organised in accordance with human needs.

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