Living on a Landfill

In the rich West we usually forget where all the waste we throw away ends up, unless there is a landfill site not too far away from our house, in which case we might be concerned about potential health consequences, or the occasional unpleasant smell.

Yet around the globe hundreds of thousands of the world’s poorest and most vulnerable people, including many children, live and work on landfills and rubbish dumps, scraping a living from what the rich of their own societies throw away.

All live in desperate poverty with little in the way of health care or education, most are illiterate, and some will never have ever left the landfill on which they live.

In Indonesia over 2,000 families survive and make a living on the Bantar Gebang landfill outside Jakarta, typically earning the equivalent of £2.20 a day from the recyclables they scavenge. In Nicaragua, over a 1,00o people live and work on the huge La Chureca landfill, in a community which includes a school. At the Stung Meanchey landfill in Cambodia, 2,000 resident workers, more than 600 of them children, work, live, eat and play among the rubbish.

The disturbing winner of the CIWEM Environmental Photographer of the year 2011 competition depicts two young children clutching each other on a landfill in Kathmandu, Nepal. In the words of the photographer, Chan Kwok Hung:

“Every day they searched the junkyard for something useful that they can resell for money so they can buy food. If they don’t find anything their grandmother blamed them seriously. Unfortunately, they had found nothing for a few days, the little boy felt very hungry. I gave them some money and a biscuit after taking this photo. But who knows who will help them afterwards.”

The videos below show a child’s eye view of a life lived on two of the world’s landfills.

Photo by Marco Bullucci via Flickr

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The Fate of the World ?

This is an article about fate – the course of events, leading to an ultimate destiny.

Not our own fate – but that of the chemicals we surround ourselves with in the modern world. So called environmental fate.

Every year the world produces around 19,000 tons of the toxic heavy metal cadmium, much of it for incorporation it rechargeable nickel-cadmium batteries or electronic components.

Global mercury production has been falling for years, but still stands at around 2,000 tons a year, used in fluorescent light tubes and thermometers.

Over a million tons of the chlorinated solvent tetrachloroethylene (PCE) is still produced every year, much of it used as dry cleaning fluid.

The pesticide Atrazine, though now banned in the EU and several other countries, is still one of the most widely used pesticides in the world, with around 70,000 tons produced every year.

In total the world produces many millions of tons of various chemicals every year – plastics, fertilizers, pesticides, electronic components, dyes, inks, medicines, fuels, detergents, solvents . . .

What happens to them all ? Where do they all go ? Where do they ultimately end up ?

Unfortunately, the answers are not always what we would wish for.

Obviously all these chemicals end-up somewhere – and the good news is that a proportion are recollected, recycled and reused. The bad news is this amount is still vanishingly small compared to the volumes produced.

What happens to the rest has has a lot to do with each chemicals mobility in the environment - some tend to helpfully stay put, but others easily dissolve into water and disperse more widely. An example is the unleaded petrol additive MTBE. Petrol itself is not very soluble, and tends to remain in place, but MTBE , is highly soluble and can easily disperse into groundwater following leaks and spills, and is responsible for contaminating many underground aquifers across the US and elsewhere.

Another important factor is how persistent each chemical is. Some will degrade or break down over time, while others may remain unaffected almost indefinitely. Usually, larger chemical molecules break down into smaller and less harmful molecules – like water or carbon dioxide etc, but sometimes, so called, break down products can be more toxic or more mobile than the original chemical. Dry cleaning fluid tetrachloroethylene (PCE), for example, can under some environmental conditions degrade into the far more toxic substance vinyl-chloride. Another example of global importance is the break down of the now banned pesticide DDT into it’s toxic, mobile and persistent decay products DDE and DDD - the impact of which led Rachel Carson to write her classic anti-pesticide book Silent Spring in the 1960s.

Once widely dispersed into the environment, substances often enter the natural food web – and may become increasingly concentrated by various biological processes, as organisms are unable to quickly metabolize or excrete a contaminant – leading to the build-up of ever higher levels. This is referred to as bioacculmulation, and is the reason many of us are now advised not to eat too much oily fish or lake and river caught fish, to avoid poisoning ourselves with mercury, PCBs or a variety of other chemicals.

Bioacculmulation effects have been blamed for numerous environmental problems affecting many species, including – honey beessealspolar bearssongbirdsfrogsbats and changing the sex of fish.

Clearly not all chemicals are toxic, but the problem is that our systems for evaluating toxicity are not all that sophisticated, and often still rely upon poisoning mice in laboratories! Needless to say real world effects across multiple species can be very different. Additionally what is know as synergism can occur – where exposure to a particular chemical by itself might not be harmful, but in combination with another chemical, can result in toxic effects. This so called chemical cocktail effect is especially difficult to predict and evaluate – whether sex hormone effectsGulf War syndrome or the possible effect of chemical mixtures in damaging species immune systems, making them vulnerable to previously harmless diseases.

Chemistry has built the modern world, and we all benefit from its advances – the device you’re reading this on, the clothes you’re wearing and whatever you’re sitting on – have all, most likely, been produced with the input of man-made chemicals. But unless we want the world to increasingly resemble a chemical soup, we need to get much better at preventing widespread release and dispersal of the chemicals we use.

The two most obvious things we could do are use less in the first place and get better at recycling those we do.

Something to bear in mind the next time you buy household cleaning products, or decide how to dispose of your used batteries or old light bulbs !

Photo by Jorge Franganillo, via Flickr

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The Most Polluted Place on Earth ?

Where’s the most polluted place in the world ?

Typing the above question into a search engine will quickly throw-up a number of potential candidates:

- The city of Linfen, in the heart of China’s coal belt

- Kabwe in Zambia, the name of which literally translates as “ore” or “smelting”

- The industrial city of Vapi in the Gujarat, India

- The town of La Oroya, in the lead mining area of Peru

- The city of Sukinda, also in India, home to one of the world’s largest chromite mines

The truth is of course that it’s not that straightforward, or particularly meaningful to rank polluted places in this way. An area might be heavily contaminated, but with perhaps only a limited number of people being exposed; or there might be ongoing pollution of important rivers or ecosystems, but little direct risk to human health. It’s a bit like comparing apples and pears.

The Blacksmith Institute wrestle with these issues every year, to publish their well regarded list of the world’s ‘top 10 polluted places‘.

Regardless of the exact order of the ranking, these lists are very useful in highlighting pollution problems around the world, and two things in particular stand out:

Firstly, that millions of people around the world are having their health significantly affected by toxic pollution.

And secondly, the world’s most polluted places are all in the developing world.

The pollution stems from a range of local manufacturing, mining, smelting, processing and associated transport and energy production,  in large part associated with the production of consumer goods, food, clothing and other items – much of it destined for export to the rich world.

Not only has the West exported most of our manufacturing jobs to the developing economies – we’ve also largely exported our pollution too !

Industries move because the costs are lower – partly because labour is cheaper (people are paid less and receive fewer benefits, such as health care and pensions), and partly because there are less stringent environmental regulations and those that do exist tend to be less well enforced.

When companies talk about improved efficiency, lower overheads, improved shareholder value etc – they’re unfortunately not always talking about ‘the good stuff’ we want them to do. Often these terms are euphemisms for leaving many of the real costs of production to be paid for by someone else, other than the company or the consumer, such as exploited workers, or polluted environments. Ultimately it’s down to the desire for higher profits, and cheaper ‘stuff’.

This of course is not new.

A list of the world’s most polluted places produced around 1900 would have looked very different, comprising several of the large industrial cities of Europe. There is of course, still plenty of pollution in the West – but much of it is associated with old legacy industries, now long gone, but with their various toxic chemical footprints remaining - from UK’s Victorian gasworks and coal mines, to the sediments of the Great Lakes polluted by effluent from car manufacturing and other industries across the American Mid-West.

Over time we’ve tackled many (not all) our pollution problems, with reformers like Edwin Chadwick, Joeseph BazalgetteAlice Hamilton and Rachel Carson progressively bringing about changes to ensure the costs of controlling pollution were borne by whoever was responsible for producing it – the so called ‘polluter pays principle‘.

But this only applies in our own economies, and in our globalised, inter-connected world, the full costs of cheap goods is often left to be borne by others, invariably the poorest and most vulnerable. Unfortunately we consumers are all too often complicit in this process – with pollution being caused on our behalf on the other side of the planet, to keep down the cost of our food, clothes, mobile phones or children’s toys.

Ultimately the answer can only lie in paying the true price for things, so that pollution can be controlled, waste dealt with properly, resources used sustainably and workers treated fairly.

What we choose to spend our money on matters.

As a start we might want to check out the ethical credentials of the products we buy and the companies producing them (Ethical Consumer) – alternatively we could think about buying and consuming a little less . . . just a thought.

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Photo from Gambier20, via Flickr

India’s Asbestos Roofs

The photo shows a communal washing area in the Mumbai slums, India – complete with asbestos roofs.

Corrugated asbestos-cement roofing is a very popular material in the slums and informal settlements of Indian cities – it’s rigid, not too heavy, waterproof, easy to cut and fix together, fireproof and most importantly: cheap.

But as is well known in the West, asbestos is a dangerous carcinogen, with asbestos fibres causing damage to the lung (asbestosis) when inhaled, and potentially, after a latent period of typically thirty years, the always fatal form of lung cancer mesothelioma.

As a consequence the importation, supply and use of asbestos has been banned in most Western countries for many years: since 1985 in the UK for ‘blue’ and ‘brown’ asbestos, and 1999 for ‘white’ asbestos (crysotile) the fibre that is mixed with cement to produce corrugated sheeting.

Asbestos sheeting maintained in good condition releases few fibres into the air, but once damaged, cracked, frayed or fragmented, a large number of dangerous fibres can be released, presenting a significant health hazard. On the roofs of Indian slums, where it is sawn and fixed by hand, it’s difficult to avoid releasing fibres.

Asbestos materials are still legal in India, and the risks poorly understood by those using them. It seems likely India is storing up a health timebomb for the future, amongst its poorest and most vulnerable citizens.

And you might be surprised to learn where India imports the majority of this asbestos from . . . Canada !

Photo by pandrcutts, via Flickr

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Polystyrene Pollution

The chances are that the last computer, TV, fridge or washing machine, self-assembly furniture or supermarket packed meat or fish you bought came packed with expanded polystyrene foam.

Expanded polystyrene (EPS) is an amazing substance, invented in 1839, and it is now estimated around 300,000 tons of EPS is disposed of every year in the UK alone – roughly 15,000 Olympic sized swimming pools ! It is difficult and expensive to recycle and is essentially non-biodegradable, being resistant to breakdown by sunlight or micro-organisms, and therefore is set to persist in the environment for hundreds of years; either buried in landfills, across the landscape, or most damagingly in the world’s oceans.

The global polystyrene industry is worth an estimated $20 billion annually, but Eben Bayer and his company Ecovative are on a mission to disrupt and ultimately do away with this industry, EPS packaging, and ultimately EPS pollution.

His alternative product is a mushroom !

Ecocradle is grown fertilized by organic wastes from the food industry and farming, it uses less energy than EPS and non of the hazardous precurser chemicals.

At the end of its life is can be easily broken down and composted in the customer’s own garden.


Photo by Complexify via Flickr

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