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In the final episode of our summer season, we talked to author and journalist, Oliver Franklin-Wallis about his new book entitled, Wasteland: The Dirty Truth about What We Throw Away, Where It Goes, and Why It Matters. Oliver spent four years researching waste of all kinds, the people that handle it, and its effect on our planet. Having just conducted our own research into e-waste at a recycling centre, we were excited to learn about a more expansive view of the issue.
The reality of recycling
Oliver has been reporting on and thinking about waste for many years, from writing about Project Sword in China to the pollution of our rivers here in the UK. He’s passionate about making the massive issue of human-produced waste more visible to us. Off the bat, he shares some shocking statistics about the amount of waste that we, as a society, throw away each year. In the UK alone, this is ~1.3kg per person, per day. In the US, the number is even higher.
Perhaps, more shocking than these figures is what Oliver calls “the foundational lie” of our recycling rate as a country. He is far from anti-recycling, sharing compelling figures with us like “an aluminum can that’s recycled, has a 95% lower carbon footprint than one that’s made of virgin materials.” But he points out that the way recycling rates are calculated in the UK is unhelpful in significantly reducing our waste output, substantially overestimating the amount of materials actually recycled.
“In some cases, half of what we’re saying is recycled is not being recycled at all. A lot of the times we don’t know what’s happening to it when we get there.
So, it’s insane to me that the government can be slapping us on the wrist for recycling the wrong yogurt pots or putting things in the wrong bins, when the reality is we don’t actually know what’s happening to this stuff.”
We need more transparency in these processes and to better understand the value of our stuff and as such, put more thought into where it goes if we discard it. Oliver tells us about some ways that the government could more productively tackle recycling such as Deposit Return Schemes.
What happens to our exported waste?
While researching, Oliver travelled across the UK and the world including to Accra, New Delhi, and Fresno. He was struck by the differences between Global North and South in resources for treating waste safely and the role it played in each place.
“Economic inequality, is at the heart of a lot of what we’re talking about when we’re dealing with waste, right? Rich people get to deal with it in an environmentally safe and fair manner, and the Global South overwhelmingly doesn’t.”
It’s imperative that if we are to continue exporting waste to the Global South, that we ensure it is not harming the people that live there and the exporting of waste is done in a more responsible way.
Positively, we also discuss how exporting what we call “waste” can often benefit those in countries like Ghana and India. The market for second-hand goods and the efforts put into repairing items means that much of the waste is reused. By looking at how clothing is resold in markets like Kantamanto, or electronics harvested by ‘burner boys’ in the now non-existent Agbogbloshie, and repaired in Accra. We could learn how to think about waste differently and in a more productive way.
Repairing to reduce waste
Oliver points out the way that Right to Repair uniquely benefits electronics users in places like Ghana. Here it is even more important that software updates and such are ensured for many years, as the lives of these electronics are being extended beyond their first user. We also discuss the huge issue that is ‘must-shred’ contracts and how an appalling amount of brand-new and usable tech is being shredded constantly.
As it didn’t make it into the book, Oliver takes a chance to talk about his experience attending a Hackney Fixers Restart Party, praising the positivity and energy. He speaks about the sentimental value of repair and the way it strengthens our connections with our stuff, and unites people across the world.
- Read Wasteland: The Dirty Truth about What We Throw Away, Where It Goes, and Why It Matters
- The Guardian: ‘I spot brand new TVs, here to be shredded’: the truth about our electronic waste by Oliver Franklin-Wallis
- More on these topics: Restart Podcast Ep 29: Tracing global flows of electronic ‘discards’ with Josh Lepawsky
[Feature images courtesy of Oliver Franklin-Wallis]