Home Episode Waste Not Want Not

Waste Not Want Not

December 22, 2020

Today we travel to a future where every nation has to deal with its own garbage. 

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Flash Forward is hosted by Rose Eveleth and produced by Julia Llinas Goodman. The intro music is by Asura and the outtro music is by Hussalonia. The episode art is by Matt Lubchansky. The voices from the future this episode were provided by Richelle Claireborn, Henry Alexander Kelly and Shara Kirby.

If you want to suggest a future we should take on, send us a note on Twitter, Facebook or by email at info@flashforwardpod.com. We love hearing your ideas! And if you think you’ve spotted one of the little references I’ve hidden in the episode, email us there too. If you’re right, I’ll send you something cool. 

And if you want to support the show, there are a few ways you can do that too! Head to www.flashforwardpod.com/support for more about how to give. But if that’s not in the cards for you, you can head to iTunes and leave us a nice review or just tell your friends about us. Those things really do help. 

That’s all for this future, come back next time and we’ll travel to a new one. 

TRANSCRIPT

transcription provided by Emily White at The Wordary

FLASH FORWARD

S6E19 – “Waste Not Want Not”

[Flash Forward intro music – “Whispering Through” by Asura, an electronic, rhythm-heavy piece]

ROSE EVELETH:
Hello and welcome to Flash Forward! I’m Rose and I am your host. Flash Forward is a show about the future. If you’re new here, every episode we take on a specific possible… or sometimes not-so-possible future scenario. The first thing we do together is we always start with a little field trip into the future to check out what is going on here, and then we all teleport back to today to talk to experts about how that world we just heard might really go down. Got it? Great!

This episode we are starting in the year 2032.

FICTION SKETCH BEGINS

[upbeat, plucky violin music]

OPTIMISTIC SPOKESPERSON:
Garbage. Waste. Trash. Junk.

You’ve probably heard these words used to describe items you use every day. Things like the plastic bags you use to carry your groceries. The water bottles you give to your kids during sports practice. And the packaging needed to deliver essential items safely to your home.

It seems everyone these days has an opinion about plastic. And you probably want to do something about it. But what can you do to help?

The scientists at National Oil have been hard at work on this problem, and we finally have a solution. We call it New Plastic, or Ecothane. Ecothane is exempt from the Synthetic Polymer Act that placed strict limits on plastic usage. When you use Ecothane, you can be confident you’re in full compliance with the law, no matter how much you buy!

What is Ecothane? It’s 95% the same as Old Plastic, so you’ll barely notice a difference.

But Old Plastic can take up to a thousand years to decompose, and new trade restrictions mean it sits in our Americanlandfills for years. Ecothane breaks down up to ten times faster than that! This means we can use more of it than Old Plastic, without contributing to the national landfill overflow crisis.

Old Plastic fills up the oceans, too. It’s estimated that in less than 20 years, our oceans will contain more plastic than fish. Ecothane is water-soluble, meaning it dissolves in the ocean over time. In the meantime, it’s safe for fish, turtles, and other marine life to ingest. Studies show minimal genetic changes to wildlife after consumption of Ecothane.

Old Plastic also contains dangerous, toxic chemicals that can leach into the soil, air, and water supply. Our communities are in danger of cancer and other serious health problems from Old Plastic. Ecothane has been shown to improve health outcomes. Residents who live near our New Plastic factories have stronger immune systems, experience fewer infections, and have lower rates of obesity on average.

So you can feel good about using Ecothane for all the things you used to use plastic for. It’s a simple replacement for you and your family. Our scientists have taken care of all the hard work. And it’s just one of the many innovations that National Oil is developing for our modern world. Join us, on the cutting edge.

Choose health. Choose safety. Choose Ecothane.

FRIEND 1 (turns off the radio):
I can’t believe they expect us to buy that crap.

FRIEND 2 (driving, not paying attention):
What?

FRIEND 1:
Did you hear that ad? For “Ecothane?”

FRIEND 2:
Uh, I wasn’t really listening.

FRIEND 1:
These big oil companies expect us to think that they actually care about the environment or something.

FRIEND 2 (still kinda not paying attention):
I guess it’s better than nothing.

FRIEND 1:
Ugh, you’re so gullible.

FRIEND 2:
So, what? You’d rather that the old plastic stuff pile up?

FRIEND 1 (a rant is coming on):
You know they only are investing in this slightly better plastic stuff because now all of a sudden we can see it, right? Look! Look at this landfill; this very landfill on the right!

FRIEND 2:
Yeah, it’s new.

FRIEND 1:
It’s new because we can’t just ship our trash to Ethiopia or China anymore! That’s why it’s new! And now… Now that there are these landfills where rich white people can see them, NOW we care about trash? And now I’m supposed to root for the oil companies making slightly less bad trash? Like that makes up for any of this!

FRIEND 2:
Why do you care so much?

FRIEND 1:
This landfill opened up two years ago. Two years! It’s almost full! We’re going to run out of places to put all this stuff. New, fancy, slightly-less-terrible plastics won’t fix that.

FRIEND 2:
Why don’t we just shoot it into space?

FRIEND 1:
Oh my god. Have you even heard of space junk?!

FRIEND 2:
No, but also… Can we listen to the radio again instead? (turns the radio on)

FRIEND 1 (yelling over the radio):
We are going to talk more about trash when we get home!

FRIEND 2:
Great…

FICTION SKETCH END

ROSE:
Okay, so today we are talking about the future of waste. What if every country had to deal with its own garbage instead of shipping the stuff that they don’t want away to someone else to deal with for them?

DR. IFESINACHI OKAFOR-YARWOOD:
The historical case that actually made the subject of toxic waste one that the global community became interested in was the toxic waste dumping in Nigeria by an Italian man.

ROSE:
This is Dr. Ifesinachi Okafor-Yarwood, a Lecturer in Sustainable Development at the University of St Andrews in Scotland. In 1987, this Italian man started shipping hazardous waste to a small fishing village called Koko, in Nigeria.

The Italian man in question paid about $100 a month to store 18,000 drums of hazardous waste in the area, without telling the local people what the drums actually contained. Italian officials later claimed that the waste was totally safe and nontoxic.

IFE:
But unfortunately, obviously, after the waste was buried by the man in different areas, it later resulted in pollution of the environment and even death.

ROSE:
The Koko Incident, as it is now called, prompted an international outcry. In 1989, the United Nations adopted an international treaty called – it’s a very long name – The Basel Convention on the Control of Transboundary Movements of Hazardous Wastes and Their Disposal, which everybody just called the Basel Convention. 

JIM PUCKETT:
It’s an important treaty. It’s got almost every country as a member to it. Not the United States, which is a big problem.

ROSE:
This is Jim Puckett, the Founder and Director of the Basel Action Network, which is named after the Basel Convention.

JIM:
And it tries to control it in terms of trade because what is happening with so much of our waste is we get rid of it by dumping it on developing countries.

ROSE:
The Basel Convention created rules that aimed to reduce the movement of hazardous waste between nations, and in particular to prevent things like the Koko Incident, where a richer, more powerful country offloads its toxic waste to a disadvantaged nation.

But the Basel Convention was not a complete ban on these imports.

JIM:
The way international law is formed is kind of by consensus, so the lowest common denominator prevails. And in this case, the lowest common denominator, I’m ashamed to say, was the United States, where they said, “No, you can’t have a ban. We don’t agree to any kind of ban.” So they weren’t able to do that at the outset. And the treaty was very minimalist when it came out and was adopted, and it required notification and consent, a paperwork procedure before you could export waste, which was a step in the right direction but it could be easily corrupted.

ROSE:
Despite these agreed-upon rules, countries in the global south are still dealing with toxic waste dumping.

IFE:Nothing really has changed,because then in 2006, we had the Trafigura case whereby a Panama-registered cargo vessel was carrying over 500 cubic meters of toxic waste and also dumped it in Ivory Coast.

ROSE:
Trafigura first shipped this toxic waste to the Netherlands, where they were told that it would cost more than 500,000 euros to dispose of the stuff properly.

IFE:
But they didn’t want to spend the money. They wanted a cheaper way, despite the fact that they are multinational companies.

ROSE:
So instead, the company sent the waste to Côte d’Ivoire, where they cut a deal with a businessman who offered to dispose of the waste for a fraction of the cost. But Trafigura didn’t tell the Ivorian government that the waste was toxic. In an email uncovered by the BBC after the fact, Trafigura said, “This is not very hazardous in the overall scheme of things, a bit of caustic in some water with a trace of gasoline.”

But after being dumped, that “not very hazardous waste” led to 15 deaths, 69 hospitalizations, and over 100,000 people who received medical treatment for problems like breathing difficulties and burning skin caused by the fumes. The local government was overwhelmed by this huge influx of people who needed medical care, and theories spread that the government had been in on the job, and had put their people at risk, which made the political situation really unsteady in the country. And on top of all of that, the waste also messed with farming and caused food instability. Trafigura was eventually outed and fined.

IFE:
In the end, it cost them over €100 million because when they were found out they had to pay compensation and they had to pay money to ensure remediation… restoring the land to its original. ecological state, which is obviously impossible because so many years since this thing happened, the land… the places where the waste was deposited is still polluted.

ROSE:
Jim has spent more than 20 years working to strengthen the Basel Convention, to make it a true ban on hazardous waste. And in December of last year, they finally prevailed.

JIM:
That ban finally entered into force. It finally had enough ratifications to become international law. And that article says any hazardous waste exports to developing countries from developed countries will be forbidden for any reason. So that’s amazing progress, but it took a very long time.

ROSE:
And unfortunately, this kind of dumping continues to happen, to this day.

IFE:
Interestingly, by January 2020, a company in Greece was able to again disguise a toxic waste as recyclable and send it to Liberia. They were only able to detect this because of the foul smell. This is four, 40-foot containers of supposedly recyclable bags. But in the end, they were toxic waste. In 2020. And so the Liberian government had to send it back to Greece.

ROSE:
Millions of tons of hazardous waste move around the world every year, sometimes legally and sometimes illegally. But hazardous waste is not the only kind of garbage that is imported and exported to and from countries every day. Sometimes it’s supposedly recyclable plastics. Sometimes it’s non-hazardous solid waste. In fact, in working on this episode, I’ve learned that defining waste is actually harder than you might think!

DR. JENNA JAMBECK:
We all define it differently. Your personal definition of waste could be totally different than mine. Maybe at its core, it’s something that you don’t want anymore. You don’t see it as having value. But that doesn’t mean that somebody else might not see that item and see value in it.

ROSE:
This is Dr. Jenna Jambeck, a Professor of Environmental Engineering at the University of Georgia who studies garbage.

JENNA:
I would say, even in my own household, my husband and I probably define waste differently, right? He’s like, “Well, we could use that, you know, for X, Y or Z.” And you know, he just ends up keeping a lot of things.

DR. JOSHUA LEPAWSKY:
You and I as individuals might think we have a good idea of waste, what waste is, because we handle it, literally handle it, probably every day. And because we have that direct, tangible interaction with what we think of as waste, we sort of think, “Ah, that is what waste is.”

ROSE:
This is Dr. Joshua Lepawsky, a Professor in the Department of Geography at Memorial University of Newfoundland. And he points out that not only is it hard to define what waste is, it’s also sometimes hard to figure out what to measure when we get into data about that waste.

You have probably heard some kind of staggering number about how much waste each person in the United States generates each day. One study I found says that on average each person in the US creates about 7 pounds of trash every day. That adds up to 2,555 pounds of materials per American every year.

Side note: I did a little bit of googling to try and figure out what weighs about 3,000 pounds, to give you a comparison for that amount of trash, and I found out that there was a great white shark named Nukumi who weighed about that much! Scientists put a tracker on her and just a month ago she was hanging out on the shores of my home state, New Jersey.

Anyway, back to trash. These numbers, they float around all the time right? You’ve probably heard them. Take e-waste for example. Today, humans generate 60 million tons of discarded electronics every year. That’s about 10 million elephants, or 110 Burj Khalifas, or 40 million great white sharks named Nukumi. But just to illustrate how complicated it is to talk about waste, and what we even mean by waste, and what counts, and what doesn’t count, Josh argues that that really large number, that 60 million, it’s not actually the number we should use.

JOSH:
Most of the waste happened before you and I even purchased our stuff.

ROSE:
To actually make your computer, or your iPhone, or your printer, or your television, there is a whole other kind of waste that is generated.

JOSH:
I think it’s very important to expand the idea of waste from electronics to look upstream into mining and manufacturing, because that’s where, by far, most of the waste and pollution arises.

ROSE:
To make an iPhone, for example, Apple uses about 8 grams of copper per phone. Eight grams doesn’t seem like that much, but Apple sells something like 217 million iPhones every year, which means they’re using around 2,000 tons of copper. And to get that copper they obviously have to mine it. And mining 2,000 tons of copper means generating hundreds of thousands of tons of waste.

JOSH:
It is very common that, you know, better than 95% of the material that a mine is moving around is the waste, or the overburden.And 5% or less is the actual ore that miners are after.

ROSE:
To give you another mind-blowing comparison, there’s a copper mine in Chile called Chuquicamata. And by weight, this mine generates as much waste in 48 days of operation as all of the electronics American and Chinese consumers combined discard in a year. And that is just copper. Your phone, and TV, and even toaster oven, are full of materials that have to be mined in ways that generate a ton of waste.

And since there is so much more of this type of waste, the waste generated by mining can sometimes have bigger environmental impacts than you tossing your old printer.

JOSH:
By far, most of the waste and pollution has happened in mining and manufacturing and, you know, is being released into and affecting the environment in geologically relevant ways for… in terms of orders of time and orders of space that far exceed that little remnant of the handheld device.

ROSE:
Take Silicon Valley, for example.

JOSH:
There’s groundwater purification infrastructure that is running to clean up groundwater pollution from electronics manufacturing in that region in the ‘70s and ‘80s. And at current rates of operation, that infrastructure is going to be working for, it’s estimated, another 700 years before it would reach drinkable standards of water set by the EPA.

ROSE:
Just to be clear, Josh did not misspeak there. He really said 700 years. But this waste, the waste generated in the production of, say, your phone, is rarely counted when we talk about how much trash a person or even a nation generates every year.

The reason I’m saying all of this is that when I went into this episode, I thought it would be WAY simpler to just be like “Okay, every country just handles its own waste.” But what I’ve learned is that we can’t even all agree on what the waste is, let alone how to handle it and who should be responsible for that!

There’s medical waste, and construction waste, and e-waste, and municipal solid waste, and they’re all dealt with really differently. Some of that stuff goes to local recycling centers or local landfills, some of it is shipped away to facilities within the country, and some of it is bought and sold, traded between countries. That waste trading has become a huge global industry.

JOSH:
I’ve seen comparisons, peer-reviewed comparisons that compare the total global secondary materials market to something equivalent to the international diamond trade, in terms of value. So we’re talking about multiple billions of dollars.

ROSE:
And you might also be surprised to learn that not all of the waste that moves between countries goes from rich countries to poor ones. In fact, according to some data, 80% of the legally traded waste in the world goes between industrialized nations.

Now, sometimes this waste is shipped out to save money.

JENNA:
If you think about recycling and the economics, you know, if you’re on the West Coast, say you’re in Seattle, San Francisco, shipping those scrap materials somewhere in the US is probably… and by shipping, I mean trucking. It’s probably more expensive than the return ship that is going back to China from delivering goods. And that’s really how it became so inexpensive.

ROSE:
But saving money isn’t always the reason that waste might move from, say, the United States to China, or India, or Mexico. In fact, landfill costs in California can range from literally $0 to $125 a ton. Shipping a container of stuff can sometimes cost way more than that. Which means that sometimes what’s happening is that the waste is being purchased by the other country.

JOSH:
There is a market overseas, or markets, overseas where a buyer is able to import materials cast off as waste or scrap in the United States, pay for the shipping to bring it across, and make a profit by maybe even just minimally processing those materials imported from the United States and processing them back into secondary resources for manufacturing where manufacturing happens.

ROSE:
Some of these countries will import waste because they know that they can process that waste and turn a profit. Often that’s because they have access to really cheap labor or because the environmental laws in the country are lax.

We should say that this doesn’t mean importing waste is actually good for the people living in those countries. Studies of things like e-waste worker conditions consistently find that these jobs are really dangerous, and expose people to tons of hazardous materials.

And honestly, part of the reason that this is profitable is because many of the companies exporting and importing this waste just don’t deal with it properly, right? They dump it on the first land they find, or they lie about what it is, or both. But there is money to be made for some people and that means that there is an economy for it.

And maybe the best place to look to see how and why a country might import waste from other places, is China. In the mid-1990s, the way the world handled waste started to shift.

JENNA:
You know, China was becoming a manufacturing hub of the world… really, they already had become this manufacturing hub and, you know, needed materials.

ROSE:
The US, meanwhile, was trying to figure out what to do with all the plastic it was accumulating and how to reduce the cost of the recycling processes. As a part of that process, the US started converting to what was called ‘single stream‘ recycling systems. So instead of separating out your plastic, from your paper, from your glass, Americans could just dump everything into one bin and the machines would sort it later. This turned out to be way harder than people thought, and a lot of the so-called recyclable stuff needed additional sorting and attention.

JENNA:
And you get things like paper in the glass and it just wasn’t as efficient as, I think, we thought we could design those systems, as well as people got confused because you could just put everything in one bin and they’re putting all kinds of things in the bin that they really wish were recyclable. So, our recycling was not as clean and it needed something, oftentimes what’s called a secondary sort.

ROSE:
So China started taking those materials, taking our trash and doing the work of reprocessing it and using the materials in their own manufacturing processes. Again, this wasn’t necessarily good for the Chinese environment, or the health of the Chinese people who had to do this work, but it made some version of economic sense. And eventually, China imported more than 45% of the world’s plastic waste.

But this system started to create bigger and bigger issues for China. According to the Chinese government, most of the plastic they imported ended up being too dirty to actually recycle. In 2015, a landfill got so overloaded with garbage that it created a landslide that killed 73 people. We weren’t really solving the problem. We were just sending it somewhere else.

And then, China said: No more.

In 2018 China decided that it would no longer import plastic from other places.

[clip from news report:]

China has notified the World Trade Organization that it will ban the import of 24 different types of garbage. The ban, which will go into effect at the end of the year includes plastics, slag from steelmaking, unsorted scrap paper, and discarded textiles.

And we’re going to talk about what happened next, and what it would mean for our future where nobody can import and export trash, when we come back.

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ROSE:
In 2017 the United States sent 70% of its plastic waste to China or Hong Kong. The next year, they sent almost none of it because China said it would no longer take these imports. And the ripple effects of this decision give us a taste of what might happen if every country stopped importing and exporting trash.

Suddenly, cities and towns across the United States had nowhere to send their plastic. Some of the waste that was once going to China is now ending up both legally and illegally dumped in places like Malaysia, Thailand, Vietnam, and South Korea.

Some of those places have then had to put their own restrictions in place because they were so overwhelmed by all of the garbage that would usually go to China. In May of 2018, Vietnam announced that it would temporarily stop accepting scrap plastic because ports in the country were completely overwhelmed with ships trying to offload this stuff. Two months later, they stopped issuing any new licenses to import waste. Just this year, Thailand decided to ban more than 400 types of e-waste.

In the United States, stuff that might have at one point been reprocessed and recycled overseas started going to the trash.

JENNA:
I think you saw communities either having to limit what folks could recycle or sometimes, in some cases, not be able to recycle anything at all, especially in small communities

ROSE:
One of Jenna’s graduate students had her own story of a town’s reaction to the ban.

JENNA:
They just had to change the whole recycling system and really limited it to almost nothing. And in the news story, within the small community, they attributed it to the Chinese import ban.

ROSE:
Since 2018, waste exports from the United States have dropped 66%, since they can no longer go to China. According to Jenna’s work, an estimated 111 million metric tons of plastic waste will be displaced by this Chinese policy by 2030. That’s about 82 million great white sharks.

In other words, this whole global system that we had of continually pushing the problem onto people with less and less power to do anything about it? It started to fall apart a little bit. And while all of this has sown recycling chaos in the United States, some countries are hoping they can follow in China’s footsteps.

JAMES WAKIBIA:
It’s so good that China banned importation of plastic waste. It’s such good news and I know it has set the pace for other countries like Malaysia, Indonesia, Philippines, and African countries to also say no to plastic waste.

ROSE:
This is James Wakibia, an environmental activist in Kenya.

JAMES:
I am raising awareness on plastic pollution in Kenya and in East Africa.

ROSE:
A few years ago, James says, he started getting fed up with how much pollution he saw. There was a dump near his hometown that was basically just spewing plastic everywhere.

JAMES:
Because plastics were carried by wind from the dumpsite and to other areas, basically, plastic was everywhere. It was on trees. It was on drains. It was in the street. It was everywhere.

ROSE:
So James got involved in petitioning the local government to shut down the site, and then he moved on to a broader goal: to ban plastic bags in Kenya. And it worked. Kenya now has one of the strictest plastic bag bans in the world.

JAMES:
It was not an easy thing. But I think because I was fueled by a lot of passion and I had a very good team, we managed to run a quite effective campaign that really highlighted the issue of plastic pollution.

ROSE:
But James says that the plastic problem in Kenya is not over. In fact, the fight is really just beginning because some very powerful people are eyeing Kenya right now. Earlier this year, the New York Times uncovered documents showing that some of the world’s biggest chemical manufacturers and fossil fuel companies are trying to influence trade negotiations between the US and Kenya.

JAMES:
The American petrochemical company lobby group has been trying to negotiate its way to see that Kenya lifts its ban on plastic. That means that the United States of America may be able to send, you know, some of its plastic waste here as well as open up Kenya to be a plastic hub for its plastics to supply in Africa.

ROSE:
And this is a trend that is going to become bigger and bigger. Fossil fuel companies have realized that they have to save themselves somehow. For many of them, the answer has been plastic – a material made from petrochemicals, which is made from fossil fuels, and they don’t want this whole global house of cards to fall apart. They need this system of plastic imports to keep working so that they can keep selling more plastic. Which is why you see big fossil fuel companies pushing hard for deregulation of plastic imports in places like Kenya.

But James says that Kenya should not be bullied into this.

JAMES:
Kenya, a small state like Kenya, having even 10 petrochemical companies, the damage that they are going to bring here is going to be tragic. It’s going to be bad.

ROSE:
Kenya does not have the infrastructure to handle this much plastic.

JAMES:
And of course, they’re offering solutions. You know, the petrochemical lobby group is offering solutions, saying that once the Kenyan government accepts Kenya to be a petrochemical hub, you know, they’ll bring a lot of investments in recycling infrastructure. It’s like telling somebody, “We are going to inject you with a disease and then we are going to invest in your healthcare.” So, “We export plastic waste and then we help you put up recycling plants so that we can recycle it for you.” And I would wonder, “Why don’t you just do it in your home? Why ship all that plastic waste, then invest so much money in putting up recycling plants?” You can do that in America. Do it there. We don’t want to.

ROSE:
And James thinks that this idea of everybody just dealing with their own waste, that’s the future he wants to see.

JAMES:
Nobody should deal with any other person’s waste. Everybody should deal with their own shit. If America is generating waste, it should deal with its own waste. It should not be exported to, you know, low-income countries, to the global south; countries like Asian countries, countries in Africa like Kenya. We have enough problems to deal with already. We have a lot of environmental problems. We are trying to resolve even by banning plastic waste. And America now trying to come, and twisting, and strangling us into accepting such trade, it’s just evil.

ROSE:
And in fact, for the United States, this future is upon us, because in January of 2021, a new set of rules around plastic exports is going to come into effect within the Basel Convention.

JIM:
Norway presented some proposals to list plastics on a special annex of waste for special consideration, and now plastic waste, if it’s mixedwhich is how most of it gets collected – mixed or contaminated, will be considered something that has to be controlled under the notification procedure. And it’s very interesting because the United States, not being a party to the convention, they’re not allowed to trade with parties, and most countries are parties. So for the United States, this new set of amendments called the Plastic Amendments are going to impact it dramatically. It will not legally be able to export its plastic anymore as of January 1 of next year.

ROSE:
Now, The US might still be able to export some plastic under separate agreements it has with other countries. But even those agreements are subject to the limits of the Basel Convention. In other words, come January 2021, as in, like, about a week from now, the United States will technically not be allowed to ship its plastic to most nations that are party to the Basel Convention, which is a big deal.

JIM:
As of January 1, the US is stuck. They are not going to be able to legally export the plastic waste collected, all of our plastic bags, and food wrappers, and everything that is collected at our curbs and then mixed together and put in bales, is going to be stuck. And it’s going to be very interesting to see what happens.

ROSE:
And Jim says that right now, the US is not ready for this. Not only are we not ready, we’re not even trying to get ready.

JIM:
It is really interesting. People just have their heads in the sand, and I’ve been trying to do some webinars and such to wake up folks.

ROSE:
So let’s go to that future and think about what would, or maybe even what will happen if the United States could no longer export any waste. We will tackle that, after a quick break.

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ROSE:
Okay, so now we’re finally going to go really into the future. The world shuts down waste trading entirely. Everyone deals with their own garbage. That is going to have a different impact in different places, obviously. Every country is going to have to figure out their own strategy. And in the US, the question will suddenly be very pressing because we consume a lot of stuff and we generate a lot of garbage. So where will all of that garbage go?

Well, there is, sort of, an unfortunately easy way to guess at the answer to that question, and that is to look at where trash goes today in the United States.

DR. MUSTAFA SANTIAGO ALI:
You can look at the Manchester community in Houston, Texas. A hard-working, Latinx community, and if you go there, and if you have an old car or classic car, and you actually begin to roll down the windows when you get close to the community you’ll feel like you’re breathing in gasoline fumes. And the reason that that exists is because they are surrounded – literally as far as the eye can see – with petrochemical facilities and other facilities that are emitting just really, really dangerous toxins.

ROSE:
This is Dr. Mustafa Santiago Ali, the Vice President for Environmental Justice, Climate and Community Revitalization at the National Wildlife Federation.

MUSTAFA:
And there’s also dumping that goes on there. There’s a recycling site that’s literally right across… Some people would say it’s a river. It’s more like a really large creek where you literally can see old car parts and other things that are being recycled falling into their water body.

ROSE:
Mustafa can rattle off town after town like this.

MUSTAFA:
Or you can go to the 48217 in Detroit where kids, when they look out their window, they don’t get a chance to see trees; they see flaring happening from facilities. Or of course, all of us know the story of Flint, Michigan and the disproportionate impacts that have happened to the children there because of their exposures to lead; lowering IQ points and causing neurological disorders.

ROSE:
And while most of you have probably heard of Flint, Michigan, there are thousands of communities in the United States, mostly low-income communities of color, who are in what Mustafa calls ‘sacrifice zones’.

MUSTAFA:
Where we place everything that no one else wants in their communities, everything from coal-fired power plants, to incinerators, to landfills.

ROSE:
In Alabama, for example, there are 35 landfill sites per million residents, which is so much larger than other states. Compare that to New York, which has just three for every million people. Many of those landfills are in low-income Black communities and this has been happening for decades.

In 1978, a waste management company put a landfill in a tiny town called Emelle, in Sumter County Alabama, which is one of the most impoverished regions in the entire United States. Between 1984 and 1987, nearly 40% of the entire nation’s toxic waste wound up in Emelle as the landfill grew to 2,700 acres.

Eventually, Alabama imposed new taxes and limits on the amount of waste the landfill was allowed to process, but the facility still handles toxic waste. The landfill also sits directly on top of the Eutaw Aquifer, which supplies water to a large swath of Alabama.

MUSTAFA:
Many of the dumping grounds, the landfills, many of those things, they’re often in those areas that are somewhat off the beaten path, if you will, so they don’t get the attention that they deserve.

ROSE:
And again, this is still happening to this day. Right now, there is another town in Alabama that is fighting to try and get some relief from a local dump that is polluting their air.

MUSTAFA:
And it’s not even… When you say odors, it’s not strong enough to really give people an understanding of what folks are dealing with there. You literally are overwhelmed. It literally almost asphyxiates with all of the things that are coming off of these landfills, these sites that are there.

ROSE:
And there’s a name for this, of course. It’s called environmental racism.

So if the US had to deal with its own waste internally, it’s not hard to guess where it would wind up.

MUSTAFA:
Well, let’s deal with the reality of the situation, that vulnerable communities are the dumping ground. So even with the regulations that we’ve had in place, we continue to push it to the areas that we felt were the least resistant.

ROSE:
And if the US wanted to take the path of least resistance here and do the least amount of work to change the way that it thinks about and handles waste, it might just start burning its trash.

JOSH:
You know, build a bunch of incinerators. In some ways, that would be a back-to-the-future move. Looking at the history of municipal solid waste in the United States, lots of cities used to have backyard incinerators and you would, you know, burn your trash. So that’s one way that a country can take care of its garbage, but it’s not necessarily good.

ROSE:
Burning trash, or combustion with energy recovery facilities, depending on how you want to describe this, is a really controversial method of dealing with garbage. Some people argue that, if done right, with the right facility and engineering, it can be a safe way to deal with trash and generate energy at the same time. Others say that it is a pollution nightmare.

JIM:
Plastic is really, in fact, a fossil fuel that’s been converted. But once you burn it, that carbon goes flying out again and will exacerbate climate change tremendously. So incineration is a very, very bad idea.

ROSE:
But just because it’s not a good idea does not mean we will not see a push to build a bunch of these incinerators.

JIM:
The industry is going to be desperate. They’re going to start saying, “Oh, plastic is a great fuel. It’s a new green coal. This is the way forward.” This is obviously what they’re going to try to do. They’re also going to try to pretend that recycling is working.

ROSE:
Now you might be thinking to yourself, “Wait a minute, Rose. There is a solution here. The solution is simple. Why don’t we just recycle everything in-house, in the US? That should solve our problem!” Well, I hate to break it to you, but recycling doesn’t work as well as you might think.

JIM:
Not going to be able to recycle our way out of this problem. I think most experts agree with that. The industry will never want to say that. And so we’re kind of in a war; fossil fuel industry against common sense. It is real denial and it gives the public this idea, “Oh, it’s going to be solved technologically.”

ROSE:
Jenna’s research has found that of all the plastic ever produced in the history of the world, just 9%  has been recycled. 12% was incinerated, and 79% is either sitting in landfills or littering the natural environment. And even the stuff that gets recycled, most of it can only be recycled maybe once or twice before it’s unusable and has to be truly thrown out.

JIM:
The whole notion of recycling being the panacea to our waste problems is just completely wrongheaded.

ROSE:
But what about other reactions? Other ways of dealing with this that are not just building a bunch of incinerators or hoping that recycling magically starts working?

JOSH:
If a country is going to take care of literally 100% of all of the waste that is attributable to the people who live in that country, then you have to, sort of, totally reorganize economic systems. Because in many wealthy countries, a lot of the stuff that people in those countries use comes from outside those countries, which means there’s a, you know, net gain of material and energy into those countries. So unless you find a way to rearrange manufacturing, you know, other forms of production to also take place within each country, it would be… I hesitate to use the word impossible, but it is seemingly impossible, shy of some magic technology, to handle all waste internally to a country where it arises.

JENNA:
I think it would just cause this self-reflection, sort of, as a society for us to be thoughtful about where, when, and how we use different materials.

ROSE:
If more Americans had to deal with all of the plastic waste we produce in the United States, they might start thinking differently not just about the quantity of this stuff, but also the design and the way that it’s made.

JENNA:
We think about, you know… What makes plastic so hard to recycle is that there’s such a variety of it. It can be any color in the rainbow. It can be, you know, rigid. It can be soft. It can be… there’s additives for UV resistance. It can be textured. But if we could homogenize those systems, it would have more value.

ROSE:
What she means by that is that maybe, instead of having every possible color of plastic, we just pick a couple.

JENNA:
Let’s just take the PET bottle, for example. So if you only make clear or a few blue bottles, you can recycle them bottle to bottle. But we know, because we’ve seen other beverages come in green bottles and other things…

ROSE:
In this future, we may have to sacrifice the green Mountain Dew bottle to save the planet. And I think that would probably be okay. And Jenna also thinks that we might wind up decentralizing our waste processing. Instead of building huge landfills or giant facilities to ship and process, burn, bury, melt, whatever, all of the plastic for a state or a region, what if we had much smaller, local waste processing?

JENNA:
So when we talk about the economics of just shipping these huge bales of plastic across the country, what if we were putting little bits of these materials, like when we get a shipment of something and you can put the packaging back in and that goes with… You know, because we have an incredible logistics system that gets us all kinds of goods. But our waste goes and gets aggregated and then has its own huge expense.

ROSE:
The packaging industry is the largest market for plastics. Being able to order whatever you want online and have it arrive in just a few days is really convenient, but it’s also terrible for the environment. So in this future, we might have to have less frequent deliveries, or – I know, horrible – wait a couple of weeks instead of a couple of hours for our Amazon order.

Jim has an idea that maybe, instead of us all buying new phones, and new computers, and stuff all the time, we could move to a world where we don’t all have to own each item.

JIM:
So we say, “Yeah, this is a product we need to produce, but we want to lease the service to you.” And therefore the manufacturer has an incentive because they own it, they’re the lessor, they have an incentive to make sure it’s not toxic, that it lasts a long time because they’re the ones stuck with it. And so it will flip this model of wanting to sell you something every five minutes and they’ll design things to last a really long time.

ROSE:
But even if we wait a few more days to get that book we ordered, and give up our Mountain Dew bottles, or rent our laptop, there’s still going to be more work to do because at the end of the day, everybody I talked to also said that we just need to make less stuff.

MUSTAFA:
In this perfect world, we would stop creating all this stuff that we don’t need. And in a sci-fi world, we would create these ‘guardians of the gate’, if you will, right? Maybe they are the pollution trolls, where if you want to pass the bridge, then there is an extreme cost. I think that we will eventually end up having to find a way to create less. And if we don’t, let’s make people pay.

IFE:
I think that, genuinely, that world would probably be a world where we are not queuing on the queue for Apple products, or the next Samsung product, or the latest computer every one year when we know we can use the computers for 10 years and still get it to perform at a maximum level. So for me, I feel that in an ideal world, if we are living in that future, then it will be a future where we as individuals are actually actively aware of the implications of our actions and not just thinking about how I would destroy this computer and they would take care of it.

ROSE (on call):
Are you hopeful that that will happen any time soon?

IFE:
I want to be hopeful. I want to be hopeful as an African. So, yeah, hope is the only thing we have at this stage.

ROSE (Mono):
Now, this is the part that you may be predicting if you’ve been a long-time listener, where I bang my very, very worn-out drum about personal responsibility. Yes, it is good and important for all of us to reduce the amount of plastic that we consume as much as possible. Definitely do that. But it’s also important to point out that there are other forces at play here, too.

Remember earlier in the episode where we talked about all of the waste that is created in the production of your phone, those millions and millions of tons of waste for the copper required for an iPhone or whatever it is? Most people don’t really hear about that, and when you hear campaigns to reduce waste and reduce-recycle, you don’t really ever hear about the people who are making the stuff. You mostly hear about us, the people who are consuming it. And that focus is very specific. That focus on the consumer happens for a reason.

JOSH:
I think one of the reasons is that it’s useful to those who hold the greatest power to actually change things, right? Because it keeps change focused away from them and towards you, the individual.

ROSE:
This is kind of like the thing we talked about back on the One-Child Policy episode, about how personal carbon footprint calculators were actually created and popularized by oil companies as a way of deferring their responsibility for climate change. In fact, it is just like that, because do you want to guess where a lot of the public messaging and PR for recycling came from? That’s right: oil companies.

Remember, a lot of plastic is actually made by oil and gas companies. In fact, the oil industry makes more than $400 billion a year producing plastic. And to convince you and me that that is not a big deal, they have spent tens of millions of dollars on marketing campaigns to promote recycling, even when recycling doesn’t actually work the way most people think it does.

So while it’s definitely good to reduce your consumption, to not use plastic bags, to not buy the latest phone every year because, really, you do not need the latest phone every year, it’s also important for us to all recognize that a lot of the trash being produced in the world is not coming from our garbage bins in our houses. It starts way before that.

JOSH:
I think we have to be open and honest that however we arrange our economic systems, if the underlying assumption is continual growth, then, you know, it’s a nonstarter because it means more and more energy and materials moving through the system. So we have to find ways to manage without growth. This is one of the reasons that I find thinking about waste so interesting is that, you know, you and I handle it, as I say, in a daily way but it does directly connect to these much broader, much more fundamental issues of “what sort of society do we live in?” Then, “What sort of society do we want to live in?”And if there’s a difference between those two, how do we make the shift from the way things are to the way we want things to be?

ROSE:
And those are the big questions of Flash Forward, right? What is the future we want? How is it different from where we are? And how do we get there?

[Flash Forward closing music begins – a snapping, synthy piece]

Flash Forward is hosted by me, Rose Eveleth, and produced by Julia Llinas Goodman. The intro music is by Asura and the outro music is by Hussalonia. The episode art is by Matt Lubchansky. The commercial voice from the intro scene was played by Richelle Claiborne. The two friends were played by Henry Alexander Kelly and Shara Kirby. You can find more about them in the links in the show notes.

If you want to suggest a future we should take on, send a note on Twitter, Facebook, or by email at Info@FlashForwardPod.com. We do love hearing your ideas! If you think you’ve spotted one of the little references that I’ve hidden in this episode, you can email me there too. If you’re right, I will send you something cool.

And if you want to discuss this episode, some other episode, or just the future in general, you can join the Facebook group. Just search Flash Forward Podcast and ask to join. There is one question. It doesn’t really matter. You just have to say the name of an episode so I know that you’ve listened to the show before, basically.

And if you want to support the show, there are a few ways that you can do that too. Head to FlashForwardPod.com/Support for more about how to give. But if that is not in the cards for you, you can head to Apple Podcasts and leave a nice review, or just tell a friend about the show. That really does help.

That’s all for this future. Come back next time and we’ll travel to a new one.

[music fades out]

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