Learn and share
For the gross amount of trash first world countries produce, landfills in their home countries are few and far between. Instead of dealing with the repercussions of huge amounts of waste, countries like the USA, Germany, and other affluent nations have discovered a way out. Bustling up cargo containers and shipping them off to sea, thousands of pounds of waste are shipped off to Turkey, Greece, Vietnam, and other countries with relaxed environmental regulations.
This fact is often hidden from the general public, left as one of the many secrets of where our trash actually goes.
What is waste colonialism?
Waste colonialism refers to the dumping of trash (mostly hazardous or dangerous waste) from developed, affluent nations into developing and under-regulated nations. The term first appeared in 1989 at a UN convention after African nations expressed their concern for countries with high GDP dumping hazardous waste in low GDP countries (read more here). The transfer, not just of waste, but of hazardous waste in particular, was not uncommon during this time. With incidents such as the Cote d’Ivoire toxic waste dump, developing nations were in fear for their people and their land. In the same 1989 UN convention, an international agreement was made that regulated the disposal and transference of hazardous waste.
But, waste colonialism doesn’t always come in the form of toxic waste. In 2019, The Guardian uncovered the secret of America’s mismanaged recycling system that resulted in over 68,000 shipping containers worth of plastic waste being sent off to developing countries (read more here).
It’s been over 30 years since the 1989 UN agreement was made, and although toxic trash disposal is not as common, there are still pounds of trash and electronic waste making their way across the seas, and waste colonialism has not gone away in the slightest.
What’s wrong with waste colonialism?
Despite the obvious moral dilemma of burdening undeserving countries with hazardous waste, waste colonialism builds upon a much larger system of colonialism that has been in action for centuries. Though it has many branches, Colonialism in itself is a system of domination over land (read more here). Furthermore, the countries being affected by waste colonialism are the very same nations that have been affected by traditional colonialism in the past.
At its core, waste colonialism is about land. It’s about keep land available and clean for colonizing countries. It’s about reducing the available land size and quality for colonized countries. It’s about the privilege of being able to choose which land to pollute, and the privilege of avoiding consequences.
For the citizens of these affected nations, waste colonialism is not just about land. The dumping of hazardous waste can create serious negative health affects that not only impact their livelihood and health, but their job security, future family plans, food accessibility, and more.
Watch here for an explanation of waste colonialism from the perspective of a Ngāti Porou woman from the North Island of New Zealand.
What can we do about waste colonialism?
What we truly need is a global treaty with strict dumping regulations and harsh consequences for colonizing nations. To create a change we will also need new methods of waste disposal that are safe and ethical for all. Governments should help fund the clean up of effected nations and work to treat and assist effected populations.
On an individual level, we can advocate for change at the state and federal levels. There are a multitude of organizations working to fight waste colonialism that we can support:
What are super-leverage points and how can they help save the future of our planet?
Super-leverage points are interventions that create large impacts in one sector but also speed up progress in other areas of the economy (read more here). In terms of sustainability, these super-leverage points are where we can make huge change across entire countries.
The report that identified these points was an international group consisting of the University of Exeter and Systemiq. So what are the tipping points that can create monumental progress?
Legislation for “green ammonia” fertilizer
Green ammonia is created with renewable energy and is less environmentally damaging and resource taxing than traditional fertilizers. In fact, using green ammonia fertilizer can reduce a farm’s carbon footprint by 90% for small grain crops (read more here). Implementing a mandate for green ammonia fertilizers could be groundbreaking for both agriculture and fuel. Green ammonia not only eliminates the need for fossil fuels to be used in fertilizer production, but the mandate would also make green ammonia more accessible, allowing it to be used for fuel and energy storage.
Legislation for electric vehicle sales
If state and federal governments begin to move toward mandates for electric vehicle sales, we could reach the super-leverage point that would allow for huge decarbonization. While this also needs to coincide with increased production and economic incentives for the population, transitioning to electric vehicles is very much in reach. For example, look at California and their new legislation. Not only was the mandate well received, but it was implemented in a way that both encouraged and supported the slow and steady transition to EVs.
Public procurement of plant-based proteins
While most of us know that the switch towards meat alternatives is a necessary one in preserving our planet, expanding these alternatives from personal diet choices to public provided options could help us reach the tipping point. Procuring plant-based proteins for meals in hospitals, schools, and government facilities could be the next step we need. Providing plant-based proteins in these spaces could free up between 400-800 million hectares of agricultural land, which equates to 7-15% of all agricultural land currently in use (read more here). The switch towards plant-based proteins will not only free up land, but it will also reduce greenhouse gas emissions, especially methane from cows.
So, what can we do?
While we encourage and wait for these mandates and practices to be implemented, we can do our personal best to help reach these super-leverage tipping points. On our own we can opt for meat alternatives, choose produce from more sustainable farms that use green ammonia, and look into electric vehicles the next time a new car is needed. We still need to make sure that we support the mandates and practices in public ways, since a large-scale implementation will be what really tips us over the edge.
Seawater inundation is having a global effect on agriculture due to rising sea levels, monster storms, and flooding. This has caused many acres of farmland worldwide to become almost useless since the saltwater infiltrates the soil, making it almost impossible for plants to absorb the water and grow.
However, there may be a solution on the rise.
Rice and Salinity
Consumed by over 3.5 billion people per day, rice is without a doubt, the world’s most popular crop. Yet, rice is one of the crops affected most by seawater inundation (read more here). Even minor changes in the soil water’s salinity can affect growth rate and final yield. Protecting growing conditions for rice and other crops becomes more important by the day.
Global sea levels are projected to rise between 2-5 ft by 2100 (read more here). This would devastate countries, the agricultural industry, and billions of people if we are unable to find a solution.
With seawater inundation becoming more pressing, researchers at the University of Sheffield are working on a solution for growing rice. The research has concluded that genetically modifying rice plants to reduce the number of stomata could be the solution.
The stomata in rice plants regulate water loss and CO2 intake, so reducing the total number of them would allow for more water to be absorbed despite the salinity of the soil water. Rice with fewer stomata need 60% less water than average rice plants, which is ideal for the salty conditions.
The researchers investigated 72 different species of rice, even dwarf varieties, in order to make their findings. Dwarf rice varieties, as it turns out, create a much higher yield than normal rice varieties.
In a similar vein, the researchers are also attempting to create heat-resistant rice crops, which could be exponentially helpful in the coming decades. Rice with larger stomata work very well in hot climates (read more here).
The Next Steps
The genetic modification of rice is a forward thinking action that could save lives in coming decades. Being able to rely on the food sources we have now is vital to the global health of the planet. Genetically modifying rice would also allow it to be grown in new parts of the world that its previously not been able to tolerate.
We have to move away from the blanket fear of genetically modified foods and embrace the solutions of our future that will save us from food insecurity.
In a great start to 2023, a United Nations report projects the hole in our ozone layer to close by 2066. Thanks to a global agreement to limit use of ozone depleting substances, 35 years later we are seeing noticeable and healing changes.
The UN report is conducted every four years and helps to track the progress and status of the ozone. While steady progress has been ongoing for the past couple decades, having an estimated timeline in the near future is a huge stride towards replenishing our planet (read more here).
- The ozone layer will return to 1980 values as soon as 2040 in some locations.
- In Antartica, and more heavily affected areas, the ozone layer will return to 1980 values by 2066.
- China has mostly eliminated additional ODS emissions (read more here)
- The peak destruction of the ozone layer has passed
Why Do We Need the Ozone?
Since the thinning of the ozone was first brought to public attention in the 1970s, there have been huge efforts to fight its decay. The Montreal Protocol, which first regulated Ozone Depleting Substances (ODS), has been in place since 1987 and has reduced global ODS by 98% compared to 1990 levels. This wide scale success is due in part to how essential the ozone layer is to life on Earth.
It’s estimated that the effects of the Montreal Protocol annually save 2 million people from skin cancer. The ozone layer is meant to protect the Earth from UV radiation, while still allowing safe light to pass through. The ozone absorbs about 98% of harmful UV radiation; a process upon which animals, plants, and humans are dependent for survival (read more here).
The Montreal Protocol and the globe’s commitment to following regulations is a success story we cannot take for granted. While ozone depletion is not directly linked to climate change, they go hand in hand with their solutions. Having a worldwide agreement that countries can commit and follow is impressive in itself, and serves as a great example for what can be done for climate change solutions.
Our progress towards healing the ozone layer is monumental. If we continue at this rate, the possibility for enacting real global action against climate change is almost in our fingertips.
When I want to do a deep-dive into something new, I often look towards documentaries for digestible, preliminary information. With everyone (supposed to be) staying in right now, I thought it would be a great time to give you my top 10 sustainability documentary recommendations! I have included the trailers so you can get a better idea of what each film is like. With that being said, grab some popcorn and a blanket, and get ready to learn something new!
1. Expedition Happiness (2017)
Available on Netflix and YouTube.
2. Minimalism: A Documentary About the Important Things (2015)
I sat down with this film not too long ago.
Much lighter than the former documentary, “Minimalism” explores how our lives might be better with less by taking viewers inside the lives of minimalists from all walks of life. I’ll just be honest here: I instantly started de-cluttering.
Available on Netflix.
3. The 11th Hour (2007)
Leonardo Dicaprio fans, rejoice! And then cry, because “The 11th Hour” is no joke. This 2007 film explores how humanity has arrived at the 11th hour – the last possible moment that change is possible for our planet and its ecosystems. Featuring ongoing dialogues of experts including former Soviet Prime Minister Mikhail Gorbachev, renowned scientist Stephen Hawking, and sustainable design expert William McDonough, “The 11th Hour” is a dense film that is likely to rattle you.
Available on Amazon Prime Video & DVD.
4. No Impact Man (2009)
This guy… Self-proclaimed “No Impact Man,” Colin Beavan swore off plastic and toxins, turned off his electricity, went organic, and started riding his bicycle exclusively for an entire year. Reviewed as a “sensational, funny, and consciousness-raisin story,” I think “No Impact Man” is a fun way to learn about zero impact living.
Available on Amazon Prime Video.
5. Forks Over Knives (2011)
As someone who is working her way toward a fully plant-based diet, “Forks Over Knives” has definitely stuck out to me. If you’ve ever struggled with a chronic disease like obesity, cardiovascular disease, or cancer, “Forks Over Knives” says you should blame processed animal-based foods. For anyone interested in nutrition and health sciences, this is a must-watch!
Available on Amazon Prime Video & Netflix.
6. More than Honey (2012)
Did you know that if bees were to disappear from the globe, mankind would have only four years left to live? Not great. In “More Than Honey,” Oscar-nominated director Markus Imhoof tackles the issue of why bees are facing worldwide extinction. I have a feeling it’s our fault. Anyone else curious?
Available on Amazon Prime Video.
7. Happy (2011)
“Happy” is one of those films that has everyone talking! In the film, filmmaker and director Roko Belic sets out to travel the world with the intention of discovering the meaning of happiness. Belic was inspired to make the film after coming across an article in The New York Times entitled, “A New Measure of Well Being From a Happy Little Kingdom.” The article ranked the United States as the 23rd happiest country in the world.
Available on Amazon Prime Video.
8. Cowspiracy (2014)
I firmly believe that watching “Cowspiracy” should be a requirement for every environmentalist. Rather than taking a purely ‘save the animals’ stance on animal agriculture, “Cowspiracy” digs deep into its environmental impact as the leading cause of carbon emissions, global warming, deforestation, and just about everything else. Watched this for the first time as a junior in high school and it truly changed my mindset on what it means to live sustainable. If you watch anything on this list, this has to be it.
Available on Netflix.
9. Planet Earth (2006)
This David Attenborough documentary celebrates the amazing variety and beauty of the natural world. Filmed over four years and across 64 different countries, there are few films that compare in terms of scope. It’s a classic for a reason!
Available on Netflix and (some) on YouTube.
10. The True Cost (2015)
“The True Cost” pulls back the curtain on the fashion industry to give viewers an honest look at the human and environmental costs of producing clothing. I thought this documentary was genuinely eye-opening; I haven’t been able to look at the clothes in my closet the same way since. Highly, highly recommend!
Available on Amazon Prime Video.
We hope you enjoy these sustainable focused documentaries!