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Toxic waste, fairness and income equality

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(Image via indymedia.org.au)

Rather than dumping toxic waste on small, powerless communities against their will, Dr Matthew Mitchell suggests a novel solution  we live with it!

THERE HAS BEEN MUCH talk about income inequality since the Occupy movement began. The OECD reports that the rich keep getting richer with the top one per cent now earning ten per cent of the world’s income.

But there is more unfairness in the system. Some people get the benefits of a hydrocarbon-driven world, whilst others cop only the negative side effects (or at least a disproportionate amount) called ‘externalities’ by economists. A prominent example of these externalities is waste — toxic waste in particular.

The effects of toxic waste are most heavily borne by small isolated segments of society and these segments tend to be weak communities unable to resist the waste that is dumped in their communities, usually against their will.

Resistance works sometimes but not always. If they are lucky to gain enough media attention or access legal support, they might be able to fight off dumping efforts. One example is the Indigenous population at Muckaty Station near Tennant Creek in the Northern Territory.

There was – until recently – a proposal to put a nuclear toxic waste dump at Muckaty Station. Needless to say the Territory locals were not-to-keen on this idea and the Warlmanpa people took the case to the federal court and won. Now the Northern Land Council has withdrawn its nomination of the site.

However, the Muckaty Station community was lucky. Other marginalised communities have not been so fortunate. The Muckaty Station's latest attempt at dumping that is just one part of a long history of forced contamination of mostly Indigenous people in outback areas.

In some cases, like Muckaty Station, financial payments are offered. But these payments do not reduce the damage from dumping or the risks to health. In fact the actual risks are unknown, as, typically, little investigation follows once dumping has occurred. And once a dump is in place there is always the possibility it could contain much more than the originally proposed contents.

This is of particular concern for any community in Australia that gets stuck with a dump for the relatively small amount of waste from Australia’s only nuclear facility, as it is highly likely that, once established, such a dump would grow to include large amounts of nuclear waste from around the world.

Such proposals were made by Pangea Resources in this accidentally-released corporate video and former Prime Minister John Howard.

Howard’s plans to turn Australia into a global nuclear waste dump were the subject of an investigation by Independent Australia’s Sandi Keane.

One real-life example is the dump in New Mexico, also strongly resisted by locals, but unsuccessfully. The New Mexico community now lives with its dump and the dump’s reputation for dangerous plutonium leaks – one of the most dangerous elements on earth.

Even in the suburbs we aren’t safe. In 2010, Victorians living near an old toxic dump in Tullamarine reported cancer rates eight times the Victorian average.

However, in general, situating toxic dumps in areas inhabited by ‘white’ people proves more difficult than in remote areas. This is something Victoria discovered with its on-going attempts to find new locations for its toxic waste, which it abandoned in 2007.

This problem is emblematic of many problems in our modern society whereby weak or desperate communities end up wearing the consequences of Western-style high living and consumerism.

A further poignant example is the dumping of our e-waste in developing countries.

So what to do about our toxic waste? How do we address this problem where vast swathes of society gain benefits, whilst shoving the consequences of their profligate ways on small powerless minorities? What to do with all those used printers, laptops, computers, T.Vs, phones, batteries from kid’s toys, from cars, etc.?

What would be fair? I am sorry but you aren’t going to like this suggestion, but here it is anyway: How about a new policy whereby there are no toxic waste dumps and dumping toxic waste in landfill is made illegal?

So what do we do with it? Answer: In a fair system you live with it. Whatever electronic goods (including batteries, phones, etc.) you buy you must either find someone who will take it (and not dump it) or you must store it at your own home. 

To be really fair, I suggest that we take this new policy even further. The end product does not capture all the waste associated with it. We also need to take into account the waste generated during production.

Thus, for each product purchased, shortly afterwards, a delivery of toxic waste is received from the manufacturer, equivalent to that generated in the production of the good purchased.

This must also be stored by the consumer indefinitely. Quite probably, the implementation of this policy will require importing vast amounts of production waste from the countries that produce our goods such as China.

OF course, for this policy to work, cheating must be prevented. Third party storage of waste must be banned. Otherwise, we simply re-create the existing problems in new forms. Wealthy householders would simply pay third-party companies who would then either take the waste off-shore or lobby governments to make sites available, putting pressure on weak communities again.

Therefore, in the fair system, each house that generates waste would have a bin for storing the waste. Most likely this would be a large steel bin on wheels. I would suggest choosing a bin carefully as if it leaks at any stage it will be your land, children and animals that are poisoned, not those of some remote community. Of course, if you move house, you must take your waste with you.

Thus, the problem of waste inevitably brings to the fore many of the ‘hidden’ problems of our consumerist society and lifestyles and the associated unfairness. The problem highlights how the effects of this lifestyle are typically not borne by those who enjoy it, but by powerless others. It is a blight that places many of us – me included - uncomfortably close to the same moral ground as the one-percenters.

Now my ‘fair’ solution has zero chance of being adopted. But fixing this problem in any other way requires radical changes not only in production methods but also social reorganisation. Changes that, according to respected Guardian journalist, George Monbiot, are essential. Monbiot points out that our current consumption model is mathematically impossible to sustain.

Thus, change must come one way or another — either by choice or by natural limits finally being breached.

What would a fairer, more sustainable system look like?  Most likely a communal model where resources are shared, dramatically reducing purchases of goods. Rather than each household having its own printer, TV, etc., ‘community’ rooms could be created where groups of people share resources such as printers or watch TV together. I guess people who live in caravan parks already do this to some degree with shared laundry and bathroom facilities.

Durability would, no doubt, become a much more important consideration when purchasing items. Increased car-sharing another. Toy libraries are already popular — with the added benefit of children playing in groups rather than on their own at home.

A positive benefit of creating a fair and sustainable society may be stronger local communities where people have a closer connection to each other. In fact, the term ‘consumer’ may well disappear entirely to be replaced with the more civil minded ‘citizen’. So perhaps saving the world from waste would lead to far better human societies as well?

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