In the last few decades, waste has become a global environmental problem. We now live in a throwaway world, where on average, an appalling 99% of the stuff we buy is trashed within six months (!). But while landfills are mounting everywhere, the burden of our waste problem is not shared equally around the world. As work begins on designing a radically different economy, we’re faced with the simple fact that for a future to be truly sustainable, it must also be fair. So, how can innovators take this into account? Which communities are impacted most? Is one man’s waste really another’s treasure?
Earlier this month, What Design Can Do launched the No Waste Challenge in partnership with the IKEA Foundation: a global competition calling for imaginative ideas to reduce waste. As part of our deep dive into the subject, today we’re exploring the social and political dimensions of our waste problem, and why it demands solutions that are rooted in local experiences. Scroll on for a few key insights, including a closer look at what designers can learn from the communities already fighting on the frontlines.
ONE SIZE DOES NOT FIT ALL
So, how is waste experienced differently around the world?
Here’s the thing: we all deal with trash on a daily basis, which can make it feel more immediate and straightforward than other issues. In reality, our waste problem is structural, and each country, city, and community brings its own set of local challenges and opportunities to the table.
There are two key reasons why we cannot ignore this. First, consumption patterns are vastly different around the world. Because our economies are linear, the formula is simple: the wealthier you are, the more you buy, and the more you waste. According to the World Bank, even though they only account for 16% of the world’s population, high-income countries like those in Europe currently produce more than one-third of the world’s waste. This is disproportionate and troubling; especially when you consider that those who produce the least are also living where climate change is hitting the hardest.
This is also where the second part of the puzzle comes in: as countries develop, their waste management capabilities evolve. Wealthier countries tend to have more efficient — or at least less visible — ways of processing or outsourcing their waste downstream. In other countries, governments struggle to manage and account for waste, often resorting to informal practices like open dumping and burning. The result is that most of the waste produced by overconsumption is not visible in the places where consumption is at its peak.
So, yes — we are facing this storm in very different boats. This is a good start to understanding the complexity of our waste problem, and indeed, of our climate crisis as a whole. But if we want to come up with solutions that are fair as well as effective, it is also important to ask: Where did the storm come from? How did it develop? Can we talk about ownership? Can we talk about power?
“If we don’t think about justice when we think about climate, we’re missing the story of what’s actually happening.” — Ayana Elizabeth Johnson, author of All We Can Save (2020)
What is the waste trade, and how does it contribute to inequality?
Here lies the crux of the problem. As things stand today, no single country is able to manage their own waste efficiently. Many wealthy countries export their waste to the poorest regions of the world. For developing countries taking in the rubbish, it’s a valuable source of income. But the global waste trade is not documented well, and a lot of toxic waste ends up leaking into the environment. Much of this export is also illegal and the poorest — who consume the least — suffer the most from the waste produced by the richest.
In many countries, the waste trade also relies on informal waste-pickers, who play an important role in processing waste, yet continue to be undervalued and left out in policy frameworks. This puts pressure on an already vulnerable population often made out of women, children, the elderly, the unemployed, or migrants. So as we push toward a global circular economy, we have to consider how the status quo not only neglects but exploits some of the most marginalized people in society. If we can expose, reverse or transform these flows, we can begin to design a more equitable system that works for everybody.
A woman sorts through mixed plastic waste in India. Image: Plastics for Change.
Which industries are the biggest culprits?
The global waste trade mostly consists of dry, solid waste. Plastic is a key challenge, with production and use growing much more rapidly than the recycling industry can match. Because of this poor waste management, an estimated 24 million to 34 million tonnes of plastic waste will enter the world’s lakes, rivers and oceans this year. Electronic waste is also becoming a huge and hazardous problem, because products are difficult to disassemble, and are often laced with lead, mercury or other toxic substances. E-waste is also the fastest-growing trash stream in the world — with numbers more than doubling in the last nine years alone.
Does recycling help?
To some extent, yes. Recycling is an important part of a good waste management system. But it isn’t the whole story. In practice, it is a flawed part of a flawed system, one which fell into further crisis in 2018, when China suddenly banned the import of most plastics and other recyclable materials. With more and more countries following suit, the industry is running out of places to send what it collects. This means that the plastic bottles you separate at home, may well end up being landfilled, incinerated or cast out into the environment. The entire industry is complicated, expensive, and in need of a major overhaul. As always, the best solutions can be found upstream, in addressing the structural inequalities that make our economies tick, and making sure that we create less waste in the first place.
“Recycling is a lovely idea when it works, But like any system that displaces the responsibility somewhere out of sight, the externalities come back around to bite us all in the ass eventually.” — Leyla Acaroglu, designer
PUT INTO PRACTICE
So what can creatives do to make sure that their solutions are socially responsible? And with issues that run so deep, can individuals really make a difference? Well, yes — we certainly think so. Here’s our take on it: if we’re going to have a fighting chance at designing out waste, and designing in a fair economy, we need everyone to work together, combining both bottom-up approaches as well top-down ones.
That’s why for the No Waste Challenge we are looking for interventions at various scales. This includes micro and meso sustainability efforts, that change behaviours on individual and community levels. These private actions can be powerful, as long as they are supported by public initiatives that tackle the root causes of waste as well as its global and local impacts.
Are you a designer or a creative entrepreneur looking to apply this knowledge into your practice? Here are a few helpful tools and resources that you can take into consideration.
BEGIN AT HOME
Perspectives on waste will differ from region to region, community to community, culture to culture. Be mindful of local challenges and opportunities, and don’t be afraid to get specific — after all, there is no one-size-fits all solution to waste. Ask questions like: What is the most urgent aspect of our waste situation? How has our relationship with waste changed over the years? Politically, where are the bottlenecks? Socially, where is there untapped potential? Is there a tradition of repair and restoration we can revive? Or a community — farmers, waste-pickers, creative entrepreneurs — we can work with?
To take this diversity of perspectives into account, the No Waste Challenge is working closely with partners in Amsterdam, Delhi, Mexico City, Nairobi, Rio de Janeiro, São Paulo and Tokyo to offer additional research inspired by the needs of each context. Applicants in these cities are encouraged to use this research to guide them towards more impactful solutions.
Example: Cataki, an artist’s initiative and mobile app connecting informal recyclers with fellow citizens in Brazil.
Example: I Got Garbage, using innovative technology to support waste-pickers in India, with the mission to achieve a decentralized “garbage revolution”.
Example: ReBuilding Center, a community initiative which rescues construction and building waste in Japan, reviving a disappearing national tradition of second-hand markets.
One of the biggest challenges we face when it comes to handling our waste more responsibly, is that so much of it is so poorly documented, and so little of it is made visible to the average citizen. In some countries, overly efficient waste management systems actually perpetuate wasteful behaviours by making disposal so easy, cheap and invisible. The problem here is that there doesn’t seem to be a problem. You lose track of your waste, and your responsibility, almost as soon as it leaves your area code. How can we encourage households, businesses and governments to better understand the different forms of waste that they produce? Can this information be used to change minds and behaviours?
LEARN FROM INDIGENOUS COMMUNITIES
Last but not least, when it comes to caring for the Earth, we have to learn from the work that indigenous and native communities have been doing for centuries. For too long, the discourse around sustainability as well as design has been dominated by Western perspectives, and thus tied to a long history of colonization. But sustainability — as a way of life, as a way of relating to nature — is not new, nor modern, nor urban. Indigenous knowledge proves this, and provides approaches to resilience that are based on a holistic view of the world and a cyclical understanding of all things in it. In our fight against waste, it’s important to centre this wisdom and the frontline communities that guard it. If you’re looking for some further reading on this topic, take a look at Norman W. Sheehan’s primer on Respectful Design, this excellent discussion featuring Klee Benally and Demian DinéYazhi, or this interview with Julia Watson on her concept for LO–TEK, a philosophy that reconciles urban design with traditional ecological knowledge.
“We can’t use the same type of thinking that created the problems, to solve the problems.” — Julia Watson, author of LO-TEK, Design by Radical Indigenism (2020)
Do you have more resources to share with us on the intersection of waste, design and social justice? Drop them in the comments below, or talk to us on social media under the hashtag #NoWasteChallenge.
Presented by the No Waste Challenge, this article is the second in a three-part series exploring the true cost of consumerism, and the enormous impact of waste on climate change. Read the previous article here: ‘How bad design is driving the ‘take-make-waste economy’.