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The Vacuum - Issue 18 - Waste spacer The Vacuum - Issue 18 - Waste
Converting Waste into Value: The Magic of the Commodity Form
by Liam O'Rourke
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In Northern Ireland today more waste is produced than ever before and there is less recycling than in any other European country. The European average for recycled rubbish is about 30 percent of the total waste output in Northern Ireland it is just 5 percent. In 2000, each Northern Ireland home produced an average of 1.39 tonnes of waste. Just under 960,000 tonnes of municipal waste is generated each year in the six counties (1998/1999 figures), of which 867,500 tonnes is household waste and under 92,500 tonnes is commercial and industrial waste collected by the District Councils. This compares to census figures for 1988 of 704,400 tonnes. This increase represents and average annual growth rate of 1.91 percent. (1)
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The average Northern household throws out more than a tonne of waste every year. If all the rubbish discarded annually was collected, it could cover the whole of Northern Ireland. Every fortnight, people throw away enough to fill the Waterfront Hall in Belfast. One tonne of plastics is equivalent to 20,000 two litre drinks bottles or 120,000 carrier bags. There are over 12,000 tonnes of plastic bottles in NI waste stream annually. In Northern Ireland the average person uses around 95 plastic bottles every year. This is over 250 million bottles. When squashed these bottles will fill about 200 Ulster buses. Every year, 230 million carrier bags are used here. Most of them end up in landfill sites. Around 200,000 used nappies are thrown in the bin in Northern Ireland every day. Around £1m worth of aluminium cans is disposed of. Every year in Northern Ireland we dispose of enough aluminium cans, which if placed end to end would cover the coast of Ireland seven times. The average person in Northern Ireland uses about 140 glass bottles per year, with nearly half for soft drinks and beer. Five out of six glass bottles used every year are thrown straight into the dustbin. 52,000 tonnes of glass are landfilled each year in Northern Ireland. This waste stream could be cut by a third if each person in Northern Ireland recycled just 20 bottles. More than three trees have to be felled every year to providethe quantity of paper that is used by the average Northern Ireland household. In NI about 12,000 tonnes of textiles (clothing, sheets, towels, tablecloths, curtains, rugs, carpets, furniture covers and stuffing, rope, twine, canvas, sacking, rags and dusters, bags and toys) are discarded every year. If all textiles that are thrown away in one year were compressed together, you could build a solid tower, the same width and three times the height of Canary Wharf Tower, the largest building in Britain. (2)
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The main reason why waste is an Issue is because it is causing damage to the environment. Most waste has been buried in 'landfill sites' (holes in the ground in places like disused quarries). Waste is tipped there and then buried in soil. The problem is that Northern Ireland is running out of landfill. As the waste is rotting, a polluting liquid called leachate goes into the waters and methane gas goes into the atmosphere, causing damage to the environment. This is an expression of the fundamental 'metabolic rift' between individuals and their environment resulting from accumulation without limits. If the more important question of the environmental sustainability of capitalism has been well documented, it is worth examining what the official response to the waste Issue has been. The imperative to reduce, recycle and reuse (the 'Three Rs' policy promoted by government agencies) does not escape and has been shaped by the logic of the commodity form. A whole profitable industry has grown around recycling and waste management. Waste has a use value. For example, once recycled, plastic bottles are made into a range of new products, including garden furniture, fleece clothing, carpets, bedding products and new bottles. It takes about 25 two litre recycled plastic bottles to make one fleece jacket. Fermanangh company Quinglass for example uses a third of the 750 million glass containers it supplies per year from recycling schemes to provide new bottles for well known brand names such as Ballygowan, River Rock, Sprite and Coke. This is not even mentioning illegal waste dumping. In the Republic, a waste contractor is paid about £2,500 to remove a 20 tonnes load of waste to the North. The person who allows illegal dumping on his or her land will pocket £70 to £100. The lorry driver pockets about £150 to £200 a trip. So after costs, the dodgy dumpster is left with a hefty £2,200 profit that is just one lorry in one drop. So it is easy to see how that can add up. Four lorry loads a day will make someone £8,800 profit that is half a million pounds in 12 weeks.
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The commodification of waste can be used to interpret collective fantasies that circulate in today's capitalist economy. The ideology of recycling is the alchemist's ultimate dream: turn waste back into gold. Converting waste into value is indeed alchemical thinking, to the fetishism of commodities one can add the fetishism of waste. In his Rubbish Theory: The Creation and Destruction of Value (Oxford University Press, 1979). Michael Thompson developed a fascinating theory of the cycles through which a thing had value, lost value, and regained value. Waste is not simply part of the 'accursed share' of society, it is material to be redeemed. There is a utopian fantasy of redemption there, not unlike the idea of the resurrection of the body. We can track the fate of a commodity from being a useful item, an item that can be exchanged for another item, looses its use value and can be thrown out as waste, and that waste regaining a 'second hand value'. Waste is not wasted.
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(1) http://www.ehsni.gov.uk/environment/wasteManage/waste_management.shtml (2) Figures taken from Belfast Telegraph, 11 March 2003 (special supplement) http://www.belfasttelegraph.co.uk/news/features/story.jsp?story=500281 (3) http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/northern_ireland/3491749.stm
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