The linear nature of our economy has instilled in us the mentality of disposability, and by consequence, waste. Every item we own ultimately has an ‘expiration’ date, an end to its lifecycle and is unlikely to be up (or re) -cycled.
The life span of several of our items varies, with clothes now becoming ‘old’ after one to two uses. The British charity Barnardos surveyed 1,500 women and concluded that an item is worn approximately seven times before it is disposed of. This is combined with the need for immediate satisfaction - i.e. having everything in our fingertips, next-day shipping and more - which makes our need for fulfillment even more impatient, and our long-term disinterest in our stuff even deeper.
The world generated 242 million tonnes of plastic waste in 2016, a figure that is expected to grow by 70% in the next 25 years. Now, many of our things are associated with plastic, and while recycling is a great way to attempt a breakout from a linear economy, only approximately 9 per cent of all plastic ever produced has been recycled, 12 percent has been incinerated and 79 percent has been accumulated in landfills and the natural environment, which ends up being washed up in rivers via wastewater, rain and floods.
After we throw that piece of waste in our dumpster and later take the trash out, we do not give a second thought about where the stuff that we used to own goes. Or, we rarely do - I guess you thought about it when you read the title, so: go you! Anyway, back to the point: we don’t see massive piles of our plastic waste near our homes, so, where does our trash go?
Where does our plastic waste go?
The same plastic we throw is also a commodity that is sold and traded in a global industry that generates $200 billion every year. Exporting plastic waste is one way by which developed nations dispose of their waste - selling it to firms that then send it to countries where the cost of recycling is cheaper. In 2018, 157,000 shipping containers of US plastic waste were exported to countries with poor waste management. Think of a very very large baby hiding something it broke to avoid the responsibility. This is the image that comes to mind when I think of this.
I mean, out of sight out of mind, right?
When plastics are sent to nations with weak recycling capacity, the plastics get dumped and eventually end up polluting the land and sea in the region. Turkey is the largest export market for British plastic waste, with Malaysia second. Britain has had 22 repatriation requests from seven nations to take back their plastic exports according to the Environment Agency. Malaysia sent back 42 containers of illegal waste in January last year, followed by Indonesia, Vietnam, Romania, Croatia, Poland and Belgium. Back in 2018, China banned exports which sent ‘shockwaves’ through developed nations, who were reliant on China to take material they could not recycle themselves.
This has, naturally, led to backlash, resulting in an international convention seeking to stop richer nations from exporting contaminated material for recycling. The rules that came into force last year aimed to make the trade ‘more transparent’ to allow developing nations to refuse low-quality, difficult to recycle waste before it was shipped.
Where does the clothing we throw away in the landfills or give away to charity go?
This is not just a profitable market for rich countries, but instead, it has evolved into a global practice that spans wider than plastics - with rich nations making developing countries their dumpsters.
Every week, 15 million used garments from North America, Europe and Australia arrive in Ghana’s capital - Accra. These unwanted clothes have been donated to be reused or resold, leading to the bombs of clothing waste landing in countries such as Ghana. Each year, the country receives, disseminates and disposes of billions of garments that are not there to begin with. This has led to the notorious mountains of clothing waste in these countries. Nevertheless, no corporation or country has been keen to take responsibility for Ghana’s waste crisis. As a result of this, over 30 African nations have set in place import embargoes of used clothes.
Many fashion retailers including Inditex and H&M encourage shoppers to bring unwanted textiles to their stores for collection and often offer discounts on new purchases in exchange. Despite this, only a small portion of clothes collected end up for sale in international markets - a company spokesman said.
The problem that leads to this waste crisis is twofold: our obsession with consuming new stuff, as seen from the exponential increase in the consumption of clothes, and the embedded mantra of Western nations: out of sight, out of mind. As consumers we do not think where the tokens of our addictions will be going once they have served their short-lived purpose. It is this mindfulness in our consumption patterns that can also lead to more people saying: other countries are not our dumpsters.