One man’s trash is another man’s treasure

It is a truism that material consumption in much of the developed and developing world has gotten out of control. Rampant consumerism and waste, superflous packaging and down-right negligence have created a problem that seems insurmountable. In fact, the world’s largest trash dump is actually a massive floating pile of trash known as the Great Pacific Ocean Garbage Patch which some reports suggests is almost twice the size of Hawaii. This article from Aljazeera explains the effect this waste is having on the fragile oceanic ecosystem. Do you find her use of images like baby albacore seals dying of pollution to be effective? or somewhat trite? Was it not these same images that convinced us all to start cutting up our pop-can plastic-things before throwing them away because dolphins were getting stuck? What do you think of her suggestions for change?

In addition, I think it fair to say that most countries are plagued by problems of waste and waste disposal, though the type and quantity largely varies. In countries like Egypt and India, traditional systems of waste disposal have prevailed over “modern” trash collecting, and usually prove to be far more sustainable. This is a documentary on the zabaleen or “trash people” in Cairo who do most of the garbage disposal and recycle up to 70% of what they collect for use in their pig farms. How can systems like this be preserved and expanded while also allowing for the development of those who work as “recyclers”. From the trailor, how does the documentary address this paradox of pursuing both modernity and higher economic development and preserving effective sustainable disposal practices in the face of globalization? (I also observed a similar practice in the Bandra slums in Mumbai, see picture). Image

Continuing on with globalization, as you can see in this article from NPR, some places are applying tech-solutions to this age-old problem, and they’ve achieved high levels of success. Is Sweden a model in this regard, or do you think it is over-zealous to claim that people will be selling their trash, that there will be an actual trash shortage in the near future? Do you think this system of using trash to generate energy will catch on in other countries? What are some of the reasons why the US has lagged behind in recycling and trash disposal?

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About cblogan

University of Michigan '13; Arabic and Middle Eastern Studies, International Security, Environmental Studies. Intern, ACCESS Community Health and Research Center

8 Responses to “One man’s trash is another man’s treasure”

  1. While the Aljazeera piece is striking and enlightening, at the same time, I found the delivery (especially the beginning) to be a bit dramatic. While plastics and the Great Pacific Garbage Patch are serious issues to be addressed, the use of language creates a biased perception by the author, rather than maintaining a neutral position and stating the facts. We all realize that plastic disposal must be dealt with. Including the albatross is mostly effective since it isn’t a common animal mentioned in environmental issues; readers gain a greater perspective of what other creatures are affected by our careless waste. Yet, further in the article, there is no connection or personal responsibility to attributed to the reader to personally act on the problem. I found myself asking a series of questions, including: Where does the plastic I use typically go? What else can recycled plastic be used for? What steps have been taken to address this issue internationally? While the solution suggestions are valid, they are lacking in practicality for the average reader. The article only suggests plastic as well – shouldn’t we aim to reduce overall consumption and waste in general?

  2. I agree with Lauryn that the opening to the Aljazeera piece was a bit much. Honestly, the opening made it hard for me to focus on the point because it made the author seem much less credible. What is happening to our oceans and the animals living in them is a dramatic issue and so a cheesy line to introduce what is a real threat seems out of place and condescending. Still, it is possible that for some audiences, that sort of hook is a great way to build ethos. I thought the use of seals and explaining what is happening to them was a good, though minor, way to appeal to people. Many of us feel very strongly about protecting animals and so it is one of many ways to attempt to connect with an audience and perhaps inspire them to take action. It isn’t the only way and shouldn’t be the only focus of an article talking about the hazards of trash, but it can be effective in pulling a reader in.

    I hadn’t heard of using trash for energy before reading the NPR article you posted. I would be interested to hear more about how it actually works and why we haven’t tried a system like this before. Are there any downsides? Does it function by burning trash and would that have a negative effect on air quality? It is startling how far behind the US is with regards to waste management. From a personal standpoint it seems that we are attempting to improve as most of the communities I am familiar with have been making recycling more accessible to the home owners. It seems that the problem stems from a lack of care on the part of American citizens. We are a country driven by convenience and so we allow packaging to be wasteful and don’t recycle when we could be. It is time that we follow the example of other countries and try to recycle the majority of what we use or develop a system to make use of the trash we produce.

  3. I think it’s really interesting to see that people have adapted in certain countries and cities of the world to make trash a source of livelihood where there are not many other opportunities. Of course, there are serious concerns for the health and safety of these people working in trash, and its probably not the first choice of work for anybody. However, I’m in awe of human’s ability to adapt and survive in the most unexpected of places. I highly recommend checking out this documentary http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sHKLIpz9F5c about how people have been living with trash in Lagos.

    In the case of the NPR article, the Swedes have found a way to turn a dangerous situation around to actually be productive. However, I do agree with Chelsea that I would be concerned on the outputs of using trash for energy. I doubt that using trash for energy will really catch on in the United States, though I do see other countries making it work for them. The US economy is just so intertwined with energy production and oil extraction that it seems unlikely to see a shift anytime soon from within the comfort zones of our government officials (who often have deep ties with energy producing corporations). It would solve a lot of problems though.

  4. The trailer for the film “Garbage Dreams” is moving. The story of how people are born into the class which they will stay in. How it is God’s destiny that they are in that class. How other people look down on them. At, the same time, we know that the recycling that they are doing in a valuable environmental pursuit. In hopes of furthering economic development and maintaining the environmentally friendly system, the workers could receive better conditions under which to work, like safety, health, and time. Their pay should be increased and their level of education previous to job market entry could be created. It would also take a bit of a cultural revolution to treat the garbage workers with more respect and dignity.

  5. There were some incredible and very insightful questions in this blog. I’m going to just address one of them: “What are some of the reasons why the US has lagged behind in recycling and trash disposal?” I think one of the biggest reasons that the US is so behind is that as Americans, we believe that we are the center of this world. Beyond the anthropocentric nature of people on this world, there is an added element that as Americans, we are central to the functioning of the rest of the world. Additionally, we have a mindset that individually, we cannot make a difference in terms of trash and recycling. And honestly, even as an environmentalist, I can understand why people think that. What is the difference of recycling just one less bin? In order to deal with the problem, communities and governments need to make it more feasible to recycle/create less trash. People need to be pushed to create less waste and be provided materials that are obviously recyclable. Companies need to move toward greener efforts and help stimulate the movement. We cannot expect individuals to just change their mindsets. Rather, we need to create an environment where changing habits are equally easy to do.

  6. The opening line to the Aljazerra article bordered on ridiculous. I also can’t help but remember what one of our guest speakers, Florian said about the use of Polar Bears as the face of the adverse impacts of climate change. Although polar bears are marketable animals he argued that using them as the poster-bear for climate change made climate change seem like an issue that only impacted the rest of the animal kingdom as opposed to all of us. Although I’m sure a lot of people will feel bad that we’ve collectively betrayed the “trusting eyes” of the albatross, an excess of waste that is disrupting large ecosystems will impact us all and I think framing the issue by using cute animals is reductive. Journalists shouldn’t exacerbate the disconnect between people and the environment, they can help connect people to environmental issues by looking for angles that focus on not just animals. I think when if comes to recycling and trash a lot of people need more incentive than the vague notion of the environment (populated by dolphins and polar bears, but not humans). I’m from the more conservative west side of Michigan, and in Grand Rapids recycling costs money while it’s free in Ann Arbor so relatively speaking, not a lot of people recycle because it’s seen as an “opt in” program that costs extra. Maybe if journalists honed in on stories about how humans are negatively impacted by waste, people would actually pay attention.

    Internationally, Egypt is the exception and the Zabbaleen aren’t compensated by the government and only receive a small amount of money from residents. Unfortunately, especially in developing countries waste removal goes to the bottom of the heap (excuse the pun) when I was in Nicaragua a few years ago the trash was everywhere, and many people burned trash which is horrible for the environment because they had no where else to put it and the government hadn’t provided an efficient system. Journalists should cover waste and trash as issues that impact us on a global scale. Just because we don’t live in Nicaragua doesn’t mean that it doesn’t negatively impact us. Journalists should be putting human beings at the forefront of their coverage, because, unfortunately, a lot of people don’t really care about the suffering albatrosses.

  7. The Aljazerra article is definitely heartwrenching and moving, especially to an animal lover like myself. While the image of dead albatrosses may have a great effect on me personally, I fear that it would not have a similar effect on a different reader. Would another reader even be able to picture what an albatross is? It seems like an uncommon animal to use as the centerpiece for advocacy. Like the polar bear is used by WWF, the albatross is very removed from every day North American life. I suppose I worry that this article does not “hit home” hard enough to spark emotion or movement.

    As far as the way that the article is written, I was a tad lost on the author’s purpose. While there is no doubt the author is a colorful, descriptive writer, I think her article loses focus several times. I got lost when she began extensively discussing the documentary in the first couple of paragraphs. Was this supposed to be an article that urged readers to view this documentary? Was it some sort of pre-film review? The remainder of the article has her bouncing back and forth between her own opinions, the ideas in the documentary, and interviews with other advocates. I wish she had focused her attention on one purpose and driven it hard to make a point to the reader.

    Her suggestions for change are vague. Yes, we need to use less plastic. I agree. However, she made no suggestions for what to do with the plastic that we cannot avoid, such as recycling or reusing. I agree that we should pressure packaging industries to use more biobased products, but I wish she had gone in-depth about the various biobased options. How can we pressure these packaging industries?

  8. On the Al Jazeera article: Although well written and full of information, the end of the article sounded somewhat confusing for me. The author says that even if we stop trowing plastic on the ocean, the plastic patch would still grow. So, clearly, the solution has to go beyond changing people behavior, and the article does not comment on anything towards an effective solution. Another interesting point is that the article highlights the consequences to the albatrosses, and not to people. As far as I know people, we feel sympathy for other animals but we are more willing to make sacrifices, compromise and change behavior when we see an issue as a threat to our well-being and our family. The author only mentions briefly that we also suffer from plastic pollution because we are part of the food chain. There has to be a stronger and more direct consequences to human beings. I would like to see this example, together with the albatross example.

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