It’s about People, not Waste!

I used to finish my lectures by saying “It’s about People, not Waste”. In a recent discussion with some volunteers in Tirana, I was asked to explain more why, finally, it’s all about people, not waste. Here are some thoughts about it, just to trigger a necessary further discussion.

  1. Waste is a social phenomenon. It is completely integrated in our life-style, our production and consumption patterns, it is directly linked with the available income per household or per capita. It is also related with the demographics, the age and the family conditions we experience. Thus, when we speak about waste generation, we actually speak about a daily human behavior that is determined by the social context in which human beings and their communities are developed.
  1. Problematic waste management, unsound waste disposal and dumpsites, open burning of waste create huge health and environmental impacts, although sometimes the most affected populations are not aware of them. Historically speaking, the most important improvements in waste management are mostly driven by serious health and environmental problems and crises. Any discussion about waste management should take into consideration that, finally, human beings would be affected in a positive or negative way by each and every decision that will be made.
  1. Waste management and recycling are shaped by the legal and institutional framework, the administrative structures, the governance practices and patterns, the economics and finance involved, the interactions between business – authorities – civil society and the know-how available. Thus, speaking about waste management and recycling, we actually speak for the social, legislative and political infrastructure of each and every society. Waste management is interwoven in social practices and it can’t be understood outside the social context.
  1. Human rights are also directly linked with waste management, in many different ways. This is why UN have appointed a Special Rapporteur on the implications for human rights of the environmentally sound management and disposal of hazardous substances and wastes. The whole science and movement of environmental justice has been developed on human rights violations created by hazardous waste management activities. Besides that, in the case of informal recyclers waste management choices are directly linked with the right to work and ensure a minimum income to survive.

I could list many more similar arguments about it, but my view is clear: you can’t deal with waste management ignoring or underestimating its social context. Any technocratic approach is and will be a failure, unless the major rule is understood. Waste management is a complex social system with economic, technical, environmental and political dimensions. Ignoring all the dimensions and sticking into the technical ones is a certain path to failure.

I have a final argument, and it is about Change. Every effort to improve waste management and recycling in a more or less substantial way (e.g. close dumpsites and substitute them with a sound waste management system with sanitary landfills, recycling etc.) is an effort to deliver social and political Change. But this is all about People, not Waste.

You need to have a vision and communicate it. You need to inspire at least a team that will undertake to drive the change. You need to understand the stakeholders involved and try to create purposeful alliances. You need to reproduce what’s been done before, but with the new approach because this gives people a stepping-stone and you can build on that.

You need to persuade politicians that although waste is not a popular issue and usually it does not bring additional votes, in case of a serious crisis it can destroy any political career. You need to prioritize waste management and recycling in the competitive landscape of public funds. You need to speak with public audiences and ensure their support or at least their approval. You need to work hard for many years in order to confirm that the seeds of Change will be gradually rooted and support them to grow. As I use to say many times, you need to pick battles big enough to matter, but small enough to win.

So, to conclude, this is why I put so special importance in the role each and every one of us play in her/his daily life. This is why I believe we need more volunteers and more activists for a Wasteless Future. As I have written “There is no doubt that the 4th industrial revolution will reshape social relations and organizational structures, and that social relations and cultural practices will ultimately revolve around the technological and economic base of any given society. However, the exponential technology developments and applications will not be neutral, their benefits will not be equally shared and the global, regional, local and social power relations will finally shape their consequences…If we discuss the bright and the dark side of the future in more detail, then it will become obvious that there is a serious possibility that things are not as bad as they seem. They can certainly be improved, but they can also worsen. Between the bright and the dark side, there is a huge grey area in which the future will be shaped. Strange, but true: the color of the future is grey and it will be shaped by your personal and collective contribution, too…” More about it in my book Wasteless Future, expected to be published around the end of 2016.

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