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The Tufts Daily
Where you read it first | Sunday, June 16, 2024

Op-ed: We need to change the way we manage waste

This year, the Education for Public Inquiry and International Citizenship class run by the Institute of Global Leadership at Tufts has been guided by the theme “Problems without Passports.” As an environmental studies and international relations major, the relevance and urgency of this framework is evident. Environmental scholars increasingly cite the interconnectedness of the global ecosystem, which calls for understanding an ‘instance’ of environmental degradation on a wider spatial and temporal scale. Just as the effects of climate change are dispersed over time and space to be felt unevenly by those who have had little hand in causing it, pollution and toxicity created in one place will not be neatly contained out of sight and out of body.

Many experts and academics are calling for the recognition of a new geological age, the Anthropocene, characterized by the ways some humans have fundamentally transformed Earth systems. This new epoch of human-produced alterations highlights our global interconnectivity, whether that be through inescapable remains of nuclear radiation, global warming, ubiquitous microplastic pollution, changing nitrogen and phosphorus cycles through fertilizer use, or inducing the sixth mass extinction. Thus, former U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan’s call for broadening our lens of international issues to address “problems without passports” is strikingly relevant in global environmental justice movements.

While there have been many cases of environmental injustice within the U.S., the perception of our country as a leader in environmental protection is misleading and narrow. Using a wider lens to examine practices within the U.S. elucidates the role that our country plays in allocating environmental harm to other states in our international system. A blatant case of this can be seen in the way the U.S. has traditionally exported waste to less wealthy countries. This pay-to-pollute system inequitably reallocates the most immediate burden of environmental harm onto others based on class, which is tied to historic and ongoing colonial configurations and social constructions of race. The way in which the economic gains of this waste production are realized by the U.S. while the costs are placed on others and rendered invisible and ‘external’ show a clear case of global environmental injustice.

In the past five years, China and other Southeast Asian countries banned the import of many solid wastes from foreign countries and have even sent contaminated plastic wastes and exported trash back to their countries of origin in Canada, the United Kingdom, the U.S. and Australia. While domestic legislation on waste management in the U.S., such as the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act, already seeks — though imperfectly — to address waste disposal, inclusive international agreements still prove illusive. Though 187 countries signed onto the Basel Convention of 1989, which sought to govern international waste trade, it has fallen short in practice; the United States failed to ratify the treaty, though it eventually reached a similar agreement with other OECD member countries. 

The lack of binding international agreements that seek to curb not just waste trade but also waste production has allowed developed countries to continue exporting toxicity. Marine plastic waste further highlights this issue, as oceans largely unclaimed by states face an epidemic of pollution with no formal voice in global governance. The full life cycle of plastic, from fossil fuel extraction, transportation and reallocation to its permanency on Earth, necessitates a multiscalar lens and transnational cooperation. So while environmental standards seem to be improving within the continental United States, a more global perspective shows that people in developing countries now shoulder the burden of the wastes which the Global North has demanded to be produced. This broader understanding of environmental harms in our globalized world gives a more accurate depiction of the problems we must collectively address.

International waste redistribution can act as a more tangible example of interconnectivity and global environmental injustice, helping us to conceptualize and address the existential threat of global climate change. This issue is similarly driven by developed countries to the detriment of others. The technology necessary to move away from fossil fuels exists affordably, though we still must consider where the materials are coming from and where our electronics will end up. Understanding our world as interconnected, with an environmental harm in one location still impacting the lives of those in another place and even another time, allows us to plan for and envision a more equitable future — one that ideally limits the severity of the Anthropocene. 

These complex issues that transcend constructed state borders through globalized supply chains and an inherently global ecosystem demand close and collaborative examination. The 2022 Norris and Margery Bendetson EPIIC International Symposium seeks to create space for this deliberation and problem solving by bringing together experts and university students from across the globe. It will take place on March 31 through April 2 and will feature speakers who will address these environmental and international concerns along with many other “Problems without Passports.”