Wasting Away

Article by Isabel Brack, intern (New York University Shanghai student, BA Social Sciences)

In the opening seconds of the Pixar movie WALL-E, we take a look at a dystopian earth set eight-hundred years in the future. As the camera zooms into Earth, we travel through dense smog, passing by smoke stacks and abandoned buildings where we end up at the earth’s surface, void of people—— or any sort of life, covered in trash. Excessive consumerism and corporate greed left Earth as a trash-littered wasteland abandoned by civilization, now being cleaned up by trash-collecting robots.  

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As a child this film frightened me because of its sci-fi story, but as an adult, this supposed-to-be dystopian future is looking more and more like our current planet as waste in our landfills piles high and trash fills the ‘natural’ world’s oceans and lands.   

Waste. Most people haven’t thought about this word very much. Waste is simply the trash or things we no longer use, things which need to be disposed of. Waste is an issue that is hidden from us in our daily lives. We take the trash out, or maybe the recycling and then it’s gone. Sometimes we see the garbage truck pick it up, but when they turn the street corner—— out of sight, out of mind.  

But, of course, waste doesn’t actually disappear even after we can’t see it. So where does it go? What actually happens to waste once it’s thrown away? 

There is no simple answer to where it goes, and that in itself is part of the problem. To answer this question we first must consider what type of waste is it: non-recyclables, recyclables, compost, and hazardous waste? Was it sorted before being thrown away? And, most importantly, where was it thrown away? Because what’s happening in Europe is not the same as North America or Asia, and what’s happening in France is not what’s happening in Germany. In fact, what’s happening in a small town in the States, is not what’s happening one town over. So when I throw away something in New York, it will most likely be shipped to Brooklyn or Queens by boat to be sorted, in Amsterdam it will probably be burned for fuel, in Lagos, Nigeria piled high into the sky and sorted by hand in landfills.  

These are the intended systems of waste, designed for society to both ‘deal’ with waste and hide it from our lives. 

However, what happens to your trash isn’t as simple as where you are or what kind of waste it is either. There are also unintended systems of waste management. Maybe you have seen someone in the city sorting the trash, picking out plastic or glass bottles and metal cans. In many countries like India, China, and the US, homeless or unemployed people who pick out recyclables for money are actually contributing to the local waste management system.  

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These ‘unofficial’ civic roles provide mutual benefit to the individual, making income off of selling sorted materials, and the city, improving the local waste sorting system which increases effectiveness and reduces the amount of materials ending up in landfills. 

Yet, there are also unintended consequences of unregulated waste management systems. As many of the landfills around the world are already at or above capacity, and overconsumption continues, our world is producing much more waste than it can handle through landfills or incinerators. This waste is now being dumped into rivers or open land, leaching harmful toxins, plastics, and other trash into the environment. Indonesia in particular is facing issues of trash being dumped into local rivers. The Citarum River in West Java and many other major rivers have filled with garbage and leak chemicals and textile industry heavy metals into the local drinking water leading to both health hazards for local people and environmental degradation. 

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In Indonesia, the Citarum River and many others around the globe swell with plastics and trash, so full that it cuts off oxygen to the entire river, killing any living things below. In Lagos, the waste in their landfills pile so high that workers have built houses on top where they live, as if the trash was a real mountain. Of course, most of this waste is not being produced by the countries which it is piling up in, but rather by wealthier countries, exporting their trash.  

These landscapes of Lagos landfills and the garbage filled Citarum River are eerily reminiscent of WALL-E’s opening moments as if they were deleted scenes from the film’s dystopian future world—— rather than photos taken of Earth today.  

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I’d posit a theory of why these pictures are not often seen by the everyday consumer and why they are hidden in places which seem far removed from the reality of our privileged Global North lives:  

First, disenfranchised populations have less capital and political power to fight against the placement of landfills, incinerators, and trash dumping sites. Therefore, landfills and waste management sites are often placed where the wealthy and middle class cannot see them. 

Second, if the average consumer was faced with the constant sight and reminder of what waste does to the earth, they might just come to the same conclusions I did while watching WALL-E. The garbage-littered wasteland scenes are not just a dystopian, fictional future, but a present reality on Earth that needs to be addressed. 

Although the film and our real earth’s landfills and rivers paint quite a dystopian scene of overconsumption and corporate greed leading to a waste-ridden planet, there still is genuine hope for our waste problems. The intentions of WALL-E were never to discourage watchers and  leave them hopeless and disempowered, but rather, to serve as an early warning to demonstrate the extreme potential harms of waste. 

Human’s overconsumption and corporate greed have led us to this pivotal point where we must face this issue of waste. So then, how do we face it?  There is no simple answer, but we can start by taking actions where the root of the problem lies:  

At the national and community level, where countries and groups of people should be held responsible for their lack of regulations on production, consumption, and proper waste disposal. 

At the corporate level, where companies and manufactures should be held responsible for their products from extraction of raw materials to waste and emissions management. 

At the personal level, where the individual consumer should be held responsible for their own consumption habits and waste disposal. 

Read about how to reduce your waste: 

https://www.worldatlas.com/articles/10-very-effective-ways-to-reduce-waste.html

 Read more about waste: 

https://www.washingtonpost.com/graphics/2017/world/global-waste/

https://www.worldatlas.com/articles/largest-landfills-waste-sites-and-trash-dumps-in-the-world.html

https://www.worldatlas.com/articles/countries-putting-the-most-plastic-waste-into-the-oceans.html

Images:

Cover photo: (Kadir van Lohuizen/Noor)

A scene from the Pixar movie Wall-E (screenshot)

Yabi Luo, an immigrant who collects cans from trash receptacles for a living, sorts her cans at the Sure We Can redemption center in Bushwick, Brooklyn. (Samira Bouaou/Epoch Times)

Citarum River, Indonesia. (Dadang Tri/Reuters)

Village on trash. Credits: (Kadir van Lohuizen/Noor)

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