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: