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November 3rd, 2015:

Overflowing landfills, unwanted humans, and a new anthropology of waste

Why has the largest man-made structure on earth, until recently, been a landfill? Are waste pickers environmental heroes, or is their work first and foremost inhuman? Do we treat some humans the same way we treat waste?

Researchers from three continents met at Overheating’s recent workshop in Oslo to discuss what new insights can be gained about the state of the world by looking at what we throw away or deem superfluous. Their goal is to develop a new anthropology of waste.

“Archaeologists have always used trash to reconstruct the past, but in social and cultural anthropology, waste has not figured prominently. It is ubiquitous, growing and symbolically and materially significant, but remains an understudied subject”, saidThomas Hylland Eriksen, the director of the Overheating project.

A growing amount of waste is one of the many overheating symptoms of planet Earth. “Since 1992”, Hylland Eriksen said, “the amount of waste produced by households in Norway has doubled. Fresh Kills, a landfill in the US, was the largest man-made structure in the world when it was closed in 2001. In the Pacific, there are ‘floating islands’ of bits of plastic that cover the area of Texas”, he stressed.

“The world is too full”

“The overflowing landfills, polluted rivers, and filthy beaches may be the most visible and visceral expression of the Anthropocene—the era of total human domination on the planet. They indicate that ‘the world is too full’”, he said.

Waste, according to anthropologists, is not just made up of discarded material. Thomas Hylland Eriksen, who wrote a book on rubbish (“Søppel”, in Norwegian only) four years ago, prefers to view waste in a very broad way:

“Waste, to me, is also a huge unintentional consequence of modernity. You want information and you get confusion and distractions; you want individual freedom, and you get counterreactions like identity politics; you want affluence, and what you get is a ruined environment. So waste can, in fact, be seen as a key aspect of overheating. It also reproduces and strengthens global inequalities when the waste of the rich is dumped on the worlds of the poor.”

For him, there are also links to the current so-called refugee crisis:

“There is a logic of exclusion and expulsion to the way we handle waste, which is paralleled in the way people are being treated: redundant humans, sometimes spoken of as ‘human waste’, people who were not meant to be, who are ‘warehoused’ in refugee camps, slums or prisons, who are superfluous, poor consumers, and inefficient producers. European discourse about the current refugee crisis in the Mediterraneanhas a whiff of this attitude”, he said.

This broad perspective on waste dominated the presentations during the two-day workshop.

Humans as waste?

The issue of humans who are treated as “waste” to be ridden of was discussed by several participants.

Cathrine Thorleifsson and Ronald Stade addressed the racist way Roma migrants often have been treated in Norway and Sweden. In the eyes of the authorities, Roma are “unwanted bodies” that with their “dirty camps” “pollute our surroundings” and therefore have to be “tossed over the fence”.

The Oralman (“repatriates”) in Kazakhstan have not received a much warmer welcome, although they “share an ethnicity with the people who reject them”, explained Catherine Alexander. The Oralman left Kazakhstan as a result of Stalinist oppression, and returned in large numbers after they were welcomed back by the Kazakh government in the early 1990s. But most people there did not recognize them as “one of us”, and, instead, treated them as unwanted and odd strangers, or as elements of “excess” or “spillover”.

Many workers within today’s capitalistic system, Elisabeth Schober said, do not feel valued either. At her fieldsite, workers are treated as “disposable human material that could be hired, fired and replaced with great ease”. Schober has been on fieldwork at a shipyard in a booming area in the Philippines, where the costs of labour are among the lowest in all of Southeast Asia.

Learning from waste pickers

People who deal directly with waste are also often placed in this category. Their role in cleaning up the city is in many parts of the world disregarded. Cairo’s informal waste collectors, the Zabaleen, have been prosecuted by authorities for decades. They are seen as a major source of the city’s waste problem, rather than contributors to its solution, Jamie Furniss stressed.

Furniss is one of several anthropologists at the workshop who has been on fieldwork among waste pickers, waste collectors, and scrap workers.

Their research, among others, questioned popular images of these people, and opened the invitation for rethinking attitudes to waste and waste management.

One of the questions their research raised was: What is the meaning of waste when Cairo’s Zabaleen are able to recycle more than 80% of the material people throw away?

Are waste pickers a reliable symbol of poverty when, as Caroline Knowles learned during her fieldwork, women who collect plastic bottles on a landfill in Ethiopia earn in a day what a waitress earns in a month?

Aren’t some of the informal waste pickers and waste workers in reality entrepreneurs? Shouldn’t waste picking be called “labor”?

After his fieldwork in an Indian scrap yard, Andrew Sanchez found it necessary to rethink theories of labor. He met several scrap workers who—despite harsh conditions and the social stigma attached to it—expressed satisfaction in the work process itself. The reason for this, Sanchez suggested, is that their work is transformative. An important part of their work is to find new uses for objects whose value has expired.

The fresher the waste, the more precious it is

The situation of waste pickers and workers, of course, depends on their ethnographic context. Some are better off than others whose work can be quite dangerous.

In his fieldwork, Freek Colombijn found an interesting pattern among waste pickers in Indonesia who collect waste from door to door and sort it in temporary garbage dumps: the fresher the waste, the more precious it is; therefore, the income is higher and the people are more satisfied and wish for no other work. Conversely, the closer to the final destination (landfill) where people work, the more monotonous their work is, and people seem to work with less diligence and joy.

So, does waste actually exist? For waste pickers in poorer countries, waste is first and foremost a precious resource that can be traded in a market. From the perspective of Warao indigenous people in Venezuela, Christian Sørhaug said, garbage heaps are even regarded as sites of abundance. He compared landfills with forests: “Materials in the wastelands (bikes, cassettes with salsa music, toys for kids, metals, etc.) afford a range of possibilities, much the same way that lianas, trees, and animals in the wetlands do”, he said.

“It is not really garbage as long as it still has value,” said one of the waste pickers Elisabeth Schober met in the Philippines. In her fieldsite, the growing number of people who try to make a living from this valuable, discarded material on the landfill are often viewed as a problem. Penny Harvey observed the same tendency among planners in Peru where she studied the development of a new waste management system. Waste has been transformed, and instead of asking how to dispose of it, one now asks how to extract its monetary value.

Turning abandoned buildings into precious mines

Also in the USA, people have become more interested in transforming so-called waste into something useful. In places that struggle with depopulation, abandoned houses have been turned into “mines” for revalued building materials like wood, slate tiles, and bricks.

“This might be turned into high-end restaurant tables”, said Catherine Fennell, while she showed a picture with material that was gathered from an abandoned gym in Detroit, Michigan.

In Detroit, reclaimed materials have become ubiquitous in everything from pizzerias, and airport juice bars, to yoga studios.

“Material recovery and reuse has been prevalent throughout human history”, the anthropologist explained. “Yet as practiced in the U.S. over the past several decades, it is seen as an ecological response to the fact that construction and demolition debris makes up half of all material in U.S. landfills. This movement is closely associated with triple bottom line thinking, a business philosophy that seeks to generate social and environmental benefits alongside economic ones.”

This transformation of materials from waste to something useful—or the other way around—has been of interest to anthropologist Michael Thompson since he first wrote about it in 1969 in the magazine New Society and then ten years later in his classic, “Rubbish Theory”.

Recycling and re-evaluation

It was not only recycling that he was writing about, but re-evaluation. Objects that were considered rubbish can regain value as antiques or historic homes.

“When you recycle a building”, he explained at the workshop, “the building itself disappears. Re-evaluation is something that happens in our heads, and the building itself stays the same. It’s our attitude to the building that changes. Once we see an old decaying building as sadly neglected glorious heritage rather than as awful rat-infested slum, our behavior towards it changes.”

These attitudes to what constitutes rubbish, and what is ascribed value and what not have been changing with the times for different reasons.

Anthropologist Ola Gunhildrud Berta told about changes on the Marshall Islands after it had become part of global capitalism.

The transition from homegrown to storebased food, a process that was started by the Japanese colonial administration, led to more and different waste. “A few generations ago, most of the disposable household waste came from biodegradable materials (palm leaf plates and cutleries, coconut cups, etc.)”, he said. “Now it is mainly plastic and hermetic.”

Tommy Ose sees the large amount of food waste as a sign of households being alienated from the larger food cycle; first, by encountering it on the supermarket shelves, then discarding the residue in our bins so that other people make it disappear.

“Rather than being remembered for its potential use value as human nutrition, the necessity for life—without which there would be no life—food now often becomes a mean to other ends: a fit body; gourmet taste; or lifestyle displays of competence”, Ose said who is researching food waste in Northern Norway.

“The current around-the-clock availability of all kinds of food, regardless of seasons of the year, in seemingly endless amounts, makes us look at food in a more short-time perspective, as disposable. We value food less, more of it gets wasted as we prioritize spending our time on other things than food management and care,” the anthropologist explained.

For a new anthropology of waste

Nearly 50 years ago Mary Douglas wrote “Purity in Danger”, a book which famously defined waste as “matter out of place”. Thomas Hylland Eriksen hopes a publication that is based on the workshop presentations will be able to develop a new anthropology of waste.

“‘Purity and Danger’ was one of the most important anthropology books of the mid–20th century, but we need to graft Douglas’ perspectives on societal cohesion and the boundaries of the body onto a historical and global anthropology able to say something not only about timeless questions, but also about the rapid changes of the present world”, the anthropologist said.

“I certainly hope we can achieve this with our planned publication. The workshop was a thrilling experience for several of us, with many very powerful presentations”, he added.

Elisabeth Schober, who had the idea for this workshop, was also very happy about the outcome.

“It was a high-risk workshop. No one in Overheating is working on waste as a central theme, but we had many stories about waste and wondered how to make sense of them”, she said.

“Every anthropologist probably has some notes on waste. But unfortunately these notes are often in danger of being discarded by us. I think”, she concluded, “we should make waste one of the central issues that we study and not let it be something that we just discard.”


Cities, not nations, will lead fight against climate change, international expert says in Hong Kong ahead of crunch talks

It is cities, not nations, that will play a bigger role in preventing the world’s temperatures from rising more than two degrees following landmark climate talks in Paris, according to an official from a global network on climate change.

Government leaders and representatives from around the world will meet in the French capital at the end of this month and into December with hopes of producing a legally binding agreement to cap global warming.

“The mayors of the world are those in the best position to take the actions needed, and they [already] are,” said Zachary Tobias, head of sustainable communities at the C40 Cities Climate Leadership Group, which involves more than 80 cities worldwide. He was speaking on the sidelines of the World Green Building Council Congress in Hong Kong last week, which focused on sustainable city development.

Research by the leadership group – which started with 40 cities a decade ago but has since grown to a network of 80 including Hong Kong – shows that cities have increased the rate at which they are tackling climate change by a scale of “260 per cent since 2011”. Those actions will be delivered over the next five years.

“This is critical as actions made from the treaty made at COP21 in Paris won’t kick in till 2020,” he added. The organisation advises and provides technical support to cities on how to achieve their sustainable goals and replicate successes of other cities.

“Cities are very much action-oriented. Mayors get elected and re-elected on whether garbage is picked up in their cities. National governments are not, for the most part.”

Tobias pointed to the “carbon locked-in effect”, which refers to investments or policy decisions being made to date that “locked-in emissions” which had consequences for the future.

Scientists have found that to keep global warming within two degrees – the pre-industrial average that experts claim is necessary to stave off the most serious effects of warming – total global carbon emissions cannot exceed 1,000 gigatonnes.

As of 2012, about 80 per cent of this budget has already been committed by policy decision in infrastructure globally, Tobias said. About a third of the remaining 20 per cent will be locked in by infrastructure decisions made in urban areas in the net five years, largely in the “global south”, or developing cities of the world.

“Based on the business as usual trajectory, the remaining 20 per cent of the carbon budget will be locked-in based from decisions that will be made in the next five years,” he said. “The carbon locked-in effect means that mayors are in a position today to impact what is going to happen tomorrow. The decisions made today re going to be much cheaper than in the future.”

“By choosing low-carbon objectives, power, buildings, industry and transportation sectors over less efficient technologies in the near term, the investment cost needed would four times less over the long-term.”

And the built environment will naturally be the area where local governments could focus their efforts on – particularly in existing private buildings – given that the entire sector is responsible for around 30 per cent of global greenhouse gas emissions, said Bruce Kerswill, chairman of the World Green Building Council.

“With the right government incentives,” said Kerswill. “It’s been recognised that the biggest impact can be made with the lowest cost in the least amount of time”. The council has set a target for all newly constructed buildings to be “net zero” in emissions by 2050.

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Hong Kong airport studies adding day and night flights ahead of 2-runway capacity crunch

The number of day and night flights at Hong Kong International Airport may be increased in separate measures to head off a capacity crunch looming next year while maintaining growth before the third runway is built, lawmakers have heard.

The Airport Authority signalled at a Legislative Council meeting today that it was looking to raise daytime capacity to 70 takeoffs and landings per hour, up from the present limit of 68 – which the operator was expected to max out by next year.

Plans for the increase were part of a two-pronged approach that the authority’s chief executive, Fred Lam Tin-fuk, had in mind to boost flights in the day and at night “before the complete saturation” of the airport.

“We are conducting a study to see if we can make use of technology to increase the number from 68 onwards,” Lam said.

“[Any increase] will be very limited, to 70 air traffic movements. If we have two additional ATMs, it will be of extra help to the capacity of the airport as a whole.”

The per-hour limit of 68 aircraft movements currently translates into 420,000 in a year – because night flights are scheduled at a much reduced number of 37 an hour to avoid noise pollution.

As well, one of the two runways is closed nightly for maintenance between 1am and 7am, reducing flight handling capacity.

Even so, night-time capacity could be increased by granting new takeoff and landing slots to quieter and fuel-efficient aircraft.

This would be the subject of a new study taking up to two years, Lam announced to Legco.

“Nowadays, planes are much quieter, so we are conducting a study,” he said.

“Now if we do not increase noise pollution, is it possible to add more ATMs at night? If that is possible, it may solve half of the problems.”

Lam said, however, that the planned growth in flight handling was not a means to “replace the need for a third runway”, which had been criticised as being unnecessary.

Green Sense president Roy Tam Hoi-pong, who was running as an election candidate for the Ma Wan district council this month, said: “I don’t think the [daytime increase] is a big issue. It’s only two more flights per hour.

“[But] even if there are noise mitigation measures at night, I will not agree to increasing more flights at night because Ma Wan residents need to sleep.”

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As it is, Hong Kong’s waste reduction plan is a waste of money

Your report, “Waste targets ‘set to be missed'” (October 31), on new data showing that more rubbish was dumped in Hong Kong’s landfills last year, came as no surprise. The latest figures from the Environmental Protection Department show per-capita waste disposed daily rose to 1.35kg last year from 1.33kg in 2013, while waste recovered remained at 37 per cent.

This is the second highest amount of waste disposed and the lowest proportion of waste recovered in the past 10 years.

This worsening trend – that is, more waste generated and less waste recovered – confirms my observation that the Environment Bureau’s target of reducing per-capita waste disposed daily by 40 per cent to 0.8kg, and increasing the waste recovery rate to 55 per cent by 2022, is pure fantasy (“Realm of fantasy”, May 19). With no mandatory separation of waste at source and no vibrant local industry making products from recyclable waste, the bureau fantasises about copying the success of South Korea and Taipei by simply imposing waste-charging. It can’t understand that it has to both decrease the waste generated (through waste-charging) and increase the waste recovered to achieve such success.

The fact is that the bureau’s every measure to increase waste recovered and recycled has had negligible effect. No trial waste-separation programme in public housing estates has ever led to city-wide implementation. The three-colour recycling bins, introduced in 1998, have never collected more than 900 tonnes of recyclable waste per year, a mere 0.02 per cent of waste generated.

Likewise, the HK$1 billion fund to support the recycling industry will not increase the waste recovered. Hong Kong’s waste recovery industry comprises small operators whose biggest costs are property rental and collecting/sorting/transporting recovered waste. Yet they can use the fund only to buy or upgrade capital equipment.

Moreover, their profitability, and hence incentive to increase waste recovery, depends on the international market price for recovered waste because 98 per cent of it is exported, mainly to mainland China. With the price of used paper falling by 20 per cent this year, and plastic and scrap metal by 50 per cent, no recycling fund will increase the amount of waste recovered.

The bureau’s efforts to recover and recycle waste are inconsequential, other than giving the impression of activity by its overpaid bureaucrats. With the unabated increase in waste generated and no increase in waste recovery, taxpayers’ money may as well be saved for the inevitable construction of a second incinerator.

Tom Yam, Mui Wo

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