There was something satisfying in watching a man in Almeria, Spain, struggle to haul a fridge – that he’d chucked down a cliff while joking about recycling – back up, writes Laura Waddell.
When I think about rubbish, my mind zooms out to a tableau of a city, in the style of children’s illustrator Richard Scarry, seeing a cross-section of all the people who live there going about their day’s work. We shop, we work, run errands, take buses attend school, and throw away rubbish on surface level; down below our sewers collect rain water and sludge in a maze of pipes, and in the distance, a little boat puffs our garbage away to some far off dumping spot.
It’s comforting to think of a society in which everything runs like clockwork. The butcher will greet you with a smile. The confectioner hands over a lollipop. All the infrastructure is there to support such charming human activity, working away out of sight and mind.
But of course, real life is never so simple. Not only is our waste and travel infrastructure less efficient than its illustrated version, prone to any number of undermining factors including overloading, collapse and bad design, but we must contend with human error, ignorance, and malevolence too. In physical terms, cities and towns more or less work, as opposed to grinding to a halt, if a majority of people play by the rules and those rules are fair. Not only laws like traffic codes, but social expectations like queuing and other norms that help keep the peace when a lot of people have to navigate shared public spaces together, all intent on their own business at haste and the convenience of others far down their priority lists.
We’re very slowly realising that the environmental cost of our lifestyles, not merely permitted but central to the profit of big businesses, aviation and manufacturing and so encouraged, sold to us as enviable luxury and necessary convenience, is irreparably damaging the shared space we live in. As it turns out, the rules don’t always cut it when it comes to keeping society trundling along, because we simply cannot keep going the way we are.
Last week in Spain, a judge ruled that a man who videoed himself throwing a fridge over a steep cliff, while joking about recycling, must retrieve and dispose of it in the correct manner. There is something biblical, and very satisfying in a way that is not entirely kind, in seeing him tussle in the dirt with his burden.
But beyond the ghost of white goods coming back to haunt those who dispose of them smugly and illegally, imagine the possibilities were every anti-social and anti-environmental act reversed.
Let’s ignore revenge fantasies – although the thought of someone scraping their own chewing gum off the pavement with their fingernails is a tempting one. And we don’t want a punitive carceral system. But let’s say shareholders of companies manufacturing the goods that most often end up dumped are forced to contend with their disposal, taking responsibility all the way to end of use.
Reversal of dumping is already happening in cases of South-East Asian countries returning waste to the West, which has arrived in the form of plastic and electronic waste, in some cases falsely declared as imports. The situation worsened three years ago after China halted processing of metal and plastic waste, resulting in other countries in the region facing an increase in discarded toxic waste coming their way. The Basel Convention, which deals with the global disposal of toxic waste, does not come into effect until next year, but in the run-up to it, there is greater opposition to these practises.
“Malaysia will not be the dumping ground of the West,” said Environmental Minister Yeo Bee Yin, taking a stand during a photocall beside rubbish-packed containers, filled with milk cartons and CDs, soon to return to their country of origin. Indonesia and the Philippines have also returned crates to their original European, Australian and American origins, physically sending the stuff back to be dealt with at source. The economic injustice of wealthy countries sending their waste elsewhere is even grosser than the stuff itself.
The lesson is that waste has to go somewhere, and for too long it has been easy to imagine it goes nowhere – that what is out of sight, or really dealt largely with by impoverished people in other nations, doesn’t impact its previous owners. There’s a sleight of hand too in the rise of individual responsible actions being confused for the wholesale legislative and industrial change that is necessary to really make a difference in reducing emissions. That’s not to say these things don’t help – palatable cultural changes, even when led by the novelty of buying something new and enjoyable to use which I’m definitely prone to myself, play their own role in shifting public expectations and education on environmental issues. Culture also impacts how environmentalism may be resisted or ignored by voters. Recent research has shown some men avoid green behaviour, because they fear it may come across as gay. As Twitter user @juanmac tweeted: “New research shows toxic masculinity to be toxic.”
I recently sat on a beanbag in the pitch dark at Glasgow Museum of Modern Art and watched Disorient by Fiona Tan, a video installation which uses two facing screens to juxtapose soft shots of pretty Far East trinkets with everyday scenes of pollution and exploitation, linking what we might buy on a whim with their conditions of existence. Elsewhere, images of waste dumps in developing countries are difficult to forget.
UK public (and political) awareness of what happens in other countries is poor, particularly Britain’s role in global economic impact. You only have to turn on the TV or radio in another country to be taken by surprise by the detail in which broadcasters discuss current affairs elsewhere. We barely get insight into Northern Ireland, never mind further afield.
One thing is certain, though – not for much longer can we continue our wasteful practises and expect someone else to deal with it without it coming back to haunt us. Picture that happy little town, but under a pile of its own garbage.