SPECIAL REPORT: Throwing out the trash economy

In the second of a special series, META looks at how different cases of environmental injustice are causing inequality around the world. This week, we take a look at the trash economy.

European governments have officially adopted higher recycling targets and new measures to prevent waste which they must write into their national laws within the next two years. And with China’s continued ban on importing Europe’s waste, environmental campaigners have welcomed the new rules as part of the solution to the world’s ‘trash economy’ problem.

Piotr Barczak, Waste Policy Officer at the European Environmental Bureau, said:

“These new laws on waste reduction will help close the loop so that resources do not become waste. It will mean Europe will need less extraction of raw materials, less landfills and incinerators that heavily impact some local communities living next to those installations. Estimates show that ambitious waste policies could bring 1 in 6 of Europe’s currently unemployed youth back into work.”

Far removed from the Brussels’ European quarter where negotiations on the new EU waste rules took place, grassroots organisations around the world are resisting the multi-billion dollar so-called ‘trash economy’.

Clair Arkin from GAIA – a campaign group that unites communities fighting against waste incineration, said:

“People around the world are fighting for the right to clean air and equitable zero waste systems, instead of costly and polluting incinerators. In the Philippines for example, citizens organised to enact a ban on waste incineration, and are building more and more zero waste cities models that stop pollution and create strong and sustainable communities.”

Other examples of groups resisting the big waste industry players are BAN which tries to halt the flow of hazardous waste such as e-waste, the NGO Shipbreaking Platform which prevents the dumping of ships on beaches in Asia, and the Global Alliance of Waste Pickers which defends the informal recycling sector.

In Delhi, India, wealthier residents and unions from the informal recyclers came together to oppose the privatisation of waste management and the resulting introduction of incineration. Their resistance is just one of 126 mapped waste conflicts in the Global Atlas of Environmental Justice.

Back in Europe, a new campaign from ‘Make Europe Sustainable For All’ – a group of 25 NGOs from across Europe – is warning that inaction on the inequalities arising as a result of cases of environmental injustices such as those created by the trash economy will mean countries won’t achieve the global goals agreed between world leaders in 2015 that aim to end poverty and protect the planet – the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Drastically decreasing waste flows will contribute to achieving SDG 10 on reduced inequalities and SDG 12 on responsible production and consumption.

However, some experts warn that some SDGs are counterproductive to both the waste and inequality problems. Ecological economist Federico Demaria explains that SDG 8 – which calls for sustained economic growth – will lead to an increase in material and energy use, and therefore to environmental unsustainability:

“It is simple: Economic growth is not compatible with environmental sustainability.”

Demaria is part of an academic team that maps the struggles waged by GAIA, BAN, The Global Alliance of Waste Pickers and many more movements that are all part of what they call a growing global movement for environmental justice.