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Wasteland: The Dirty Truth About What We Throw Away, Where It Goes, and Why It Matters.

Updated: Oct 9, 2023

Do you have a drawer in your home in which you store old electronic equipment like phones and tablets, just in case you need them someday? If so, you wouldn't be alone. It seems that nearly household does this - to such an extent that up to 7 per cent of all of the gold that has ever been mined is now sitting in such drawers.

I learned this from reading Wasteland, by Oliver Franklin-Wallis - a book in which he sets out to tell the 'dirty truth about what we throw away, where it goes, and why it matters.’

And it’s not just gold in those drawers. Quoting a UN report, Franklin-Wallis tells us that one tonne of electronic waste can contain 50 times more copper than a tonne of copper ore, alongside iron and aluminium and several rare earth elements. And ultimately less than 20% of that electronic waste is being recycled.

And why does that un-recycled electronic waste matter? Well, what can't be recycled will be found in the ground. The book follows the story to Brazil and tells the story of Brumadinhop, where in 2019 a dam that had been built from the detritus of the local mining industry broke, releasing nearly twelve million cubic metres of toxic slurry. Two hundred and seventy people were killed. It’s just one example of poorly managed mining waste - in an industry that produces 100 billion tonnes of waste a year. And that waste is breath-takingly wasteful: one tonne of gold-ore, for example, is needed to get just 5 grammes of gold.

This story is told in the context of a world where wealthy countries have largely outsourced their waste problems to the global south, and rarely confront the complexity of dealing with it all. And where our relationship with waste has been so thoroughly reshaped by the emergence of plastic that one third of what we throw away is now less than a year old.

The concept of the disposable society has even spread to the clothing-industry, creating a situation where - in Stockholm - a power station has switched from burning coal to burning clothing.

The many different aspects of the waste industry is covered, and this brings us on a world tour of sorts. Where, for example, we join a family in India who make their living from rummaging through the landfills around Delhi. And also on an extended tour of the clothes markets in Accra in Ghana, where we learn how traders buy bales of discarded clothing from Europe and sell what they can from those bales. What can’t be sold, though, ends up being dealt with by Ghana's overstretched waste system. We also learn how the local textile industry has entirely collapsed - unable to compete with what we give away for free.

This book does not hide from the difficulty of finding solutions to any of the problems discussed. But it does not offer an entirely negative message either. Despite many failures and the pernicious effects of greenwashing, we learn that recycling can work. 80 percent of the copper ever mined, for example, is still in circulation, largely because we are good at recycling heavy equipment like cars and washing machines.

Notably, though, those are also things which we don't (yet) consider 'disposable'.

Franklin-Wallis ultimately argues that the solution to our waste problem is simple: we should buy less stuff!

This is a really, really good book. That is a pleasure to read, even as you find yourself depressed by what you're reading!

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